How are “synthetic” versions of chemicals made?



I was looking at a wikipedia page about a particular chemical and it said something to the effect of “this was originally extracted from a fungus, but can now be made synthetically”. What does that actually mean? I can conceptualise the process of extracting chemicals from organic materials, but when something is created synthetically the chemists do…what exactly?

In: Chemistry

take a bunch of reagents (starting material that’s similar to the final product) and mix them/sometimes subject them to specific conditions, the reagents will arrange themselves to match the end product’s exact chemical makeup. I’m a chem student so that’s probably a terrible way to explain it, someone will do a better job LOL

Normally if something is made by a natural process, we gather it up and purify it for use.
Sometimes we can imitate the natural process in the lab, like banana flavor. You can either follow the biological process in the lab, or come up with a new way of doing it that’s quicker or cheaper. For instance, they used to get insulin from sheep, I think, but they figured out how to make it without getting the sheep involved.

Chemists don’t usually make things all the way from their constituent elements but use off the shelf chemicals that are made from other chemicals that are made from …. that are made from things that are or can be made from simple components.

Ammonia is made from nitrogen in the atmosphere and hydrogen which can come from various sources. Salt water can be converted into sodium hydroxide and chlorine by electrical current. Sulfuric acid in steps from burning sulfur. A lot of organic materials are derived from the chemicals in crude oil because that is an easy source but those could be produced from more basic chemicals, although taking much more time and expense.

Consider a nice simple chemical – ethanol. We’ve known for thousands of years how to produce it biologically, by fermenting stuff, but that is what we call a batch process – you make up a big vessel of starter material, let it do it’s thing, extract what you want, clean it out, distill etc. Not as fast as it could be.

Instead, by knowledge of chemistry, we realised that we could produce the same ethanol by a synthetic route – hydration of ethene, a product from crude oil, as a continuous process – ingredients come in, react and come out without pausing at high speed and high purity.

“Chemicals” are composed of different chemical elements bound together into certain “molecules”.

Once you figure out what the molecular structure of a chemical is, you can try to find alternate ways of producing it.

For example, for centuries, people have used ammonia for cleaning and dying things, and it was typically obtained from fermented urine. But in the modern era, we realized that ammonia is just a very specific molecule of 3 hydrogen atoms and 1 nitrogen atom, and so we were able to figure out a way to make nitrogen and hydrogen gases react together to produce ammonia synthetically.

In biochemistry you can also have genes added to a thing that doesn’t normally carry a gene for something. For example, insulin is produced by mammals and not bacteria or yeast. But if you insert the genes for insulin into them you can culture bacteria or yeast and produce human insulin instead of having to extract it from human pancreas.

Getting to an end goal in chemistry is a puzzle. You want xyz, how can I get there in the easiest way possible?

The answer depends on what you have at hand, and what processes you know of to manipulate the chemicals.

Maybe you have an organic compound that has a chemical abxyz in it, and you know of a process to separate (i.e. decompose) the ab from the xyz.

Or maybe you have the chemical x and the chemical yz, and you know of a process to combine (i.e. synthesize) them together.

The latter is creating xyz synthetically, which means combining two or more chemicals together.

As a side note, what made me appreciate chemistry is watching NileRed on YouTube. Here’s a video of him [extracting pure gold from gold jeweley]( I’m not a chemistry expert, so a lot of the details go over my head, but I think despite that, one can still appreciate the process and systematic thinking that is going on.