Gabor A. Somorjai Award For
Creative Research In Catalysis | January 10, 2011 Issue - Vol. 89 Issue 2 | Chemical & Engineering News
Volume 89 Issue 2 | p. 41 | Awards
Issue Date: January 10, 2011

Gabor A. Somorjai Award For
Creative Research In Catalysis

Sponsored by the Gabor A. & Judith K. Somorjai Endowment Fund
Department: ACS News
Credit: Courtesy of Harold Kung
Credit: Courtesy of Harold Kung

For nearly four decades, Northwestern University’s Harold H. Kung, a professor of chemical and biological engineering, has combined experimental creativity and scientific insight to advance the frontiers of catalysis. For his outstanding contributions to the fundamental understanding of catalytic phenomena and for the innovative design of novel catalytic structures, Kung, 61, is being honored with the Gabor A. Somorjai Award.

Longtime practitioners of heterogeneous (surface) catalysis point out that Kung’s impact on the field is as deep as it is broad. For example, he has uncovered basic phenomena governing oxidative dehydrogenation of alkanes and demonstrated the role of anionic vacancies and other oxide defects in mediating catalytic reactions. Kung and his coworkers have also elucidated mechanisms of bifunctional and oxide catalysts in lean NOx chemistry, which is critical to automotive emissions cleanup.

Moving beyond those topics, members of the Kung group applied their synthesis skills to study molecular confinement in nanosized cages and its effect on chemical reactivity. They prepared porous siloxanes containing 2-nm-diameter cavities with aminopropyl groups tethered to the interior surfaces. With that well-controlled molecular system, the team demonstrated that electrostatic interactions in the confined space alter the amine groups’ proton affinity and thereby change their chemical reactivity relative to unconfined amine groups. The team showed that as a result of the shift in proton affinity, an uncharacteristically large fraction of neutral amines in the cavity remains available to mediate base-catalyzed reactions even in neutral or acidic media.

Kung’s work in gold catalysis further illustrates the breadth and importance of his research program. For example, in the view of Abhaya K. Datye, a chemical engineering professor at the University of New Mexico, Kung and coworkers have done “groundbreaking work to help understand the nature of active sites in CO oxidation on gold.”

After tackling that hotly debated topic by applying several spectroscopy techniques, Kung’s group established the key role played in that reaction by metallic gold. The team also showed how hydroxyl groups enhance the system’s reactivity and how chloride ions reduce it. The series of studies resulted in a highly cited catalytic model as well as advances in methods for preparing the catalysts. More recently, the group reported a novel gold-catalyzed process for selective epoxidation of propene with molecular oxygen.

Reflecting on the scope of Kung’s contributions, Robert J. Davis, a chemical engineering professor at the University of Virginia, Charlottesville, says, “Harold is a world-class innovator and researcher, and I can only hope that someday I will make an impact on our field as significant as his.”

Kung earned a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Wisconsin in 1971 and a doctorate in chemistry from Northwestern in 1974. He then served as a research scientist at DuPont for two years before taking a faculty position at Northwestern.

Kung has published roughly 250 papers in scholarly journals and has authored and edited three books and three journal volumes on catalysis. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the recipient of several prestigious awards including those from the North American Catalysis Society and the catalysis division of the Chemical Institute of Canada.

Kung will present the award address before the Divisions of Catalysis Science & Technology and Petroleum Chemistry.

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