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ACS Award In Pure Chemistry

Recipients are honored for contributions of major significance to chemistry

by Susan R. Morrissey
February 23, 2009 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 87, Issue 8

Credit: Courtesy of Garnet Chan
Credit: Courtesy of Garnet Chan

Sponsored by Alpha Chi Sigma Fraternity and the Alpha Chi Sigma Educational Foundation

Computational quantum chemistry is not a new field, but it is being impacted greatly by a new generation of theorists. Leading this charge is Garnet K-L. Chan.

An assistant professor of chemistry at Cornell University, Chan, 31, is being honored for his work in quantum chemistry that has changed the ideas about what is fundamentally possible in the simulation of complex quantum systems. Specifically, his work makes possible the accurate description of strongly correlated electron problems such as those arising from energy and electron transfer in biological photosynthetic centers or from complex spin-coupled magnetism in transition-metal clusters.

His receiving this award reflects wide support for this area of research on many levels, Chan says. For example, in a broad context, the selection of a theorist indicates that “the vibrant younger generation of theorists, who are contributing all sorts of new and interesting ideas, are receiving a vote of confidence,” he explains. And on a personal level, he adds that at this stage of one’s career, “one relies a lot on the support of others in the community, and I feel very grateful to have their support and appreciation for my work.”

Chan’s research involves applying the density matrix renormalization group approach to solving the many-electron Schrödinger equation. This application allows simulations of multielectron systems that are more accurate than those obtained by the single-reference approximation method, which treats electrons as nearly independent bodies.

“By eliminating the fundamental approximation, which has so far defined the limits of quantum chemical simulation, Chan has made contributions that are now shaping a new field of quantum chemistry,” notes Roald Hoffmann, a Nobel Laureate and chemistry professor at Cornell. “While other theoretical chemists are now incorporating these ideas into their research, Chan is the leader and driver of this field,” he adds.

“Garnet has made spectacular further advances in both algorithms and applications of the density matrix renormalization group” method during his tenure at Cornell, points out Martin P. Head-Gordon, chemistry professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Chan’s former postdoctoral adviser. Those advances enable “the treatment of systems with far more electrons (between 10 and 100 times more) than we could have imagined when he was a postdoc with me,” he says.

Recent work by Chan has shown that in certain cases the coupled motions of even a hundred strongly correlated electrons, for example those found in the Mott transition in hydrogen chains, can be directly simulated from first principles by using the quadratic-scaling density-matrix renormalization group approach that he developed.

Chan came to the U.S. after receiving a B.A. in chemistry in 1996 and an M.A. and a Ph.D. in theoretical chemistry in 2000, all from Christ’s College at the University of Cambridge. After postdoctoral fellowships at UC Berkeley and at Cambridge, Chan joined the faculty of Cornell in 2004.

He has authored or coauthored nearly 30 peer-reviewed journal articles. He was an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellow in 2007 and a David & Lucie Packard Foundation Fellow in 2006. He received a National Science Foundation Career grant in 2007.

Chan will present the award address before the Division of Physical Chemistry.


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