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ACS Award In Pure Chemistry

by Susan R. Morrissey
January 28, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 4

Credit: Lance Hayashida/CALTECH
A mug of Theodor Agapie, assistant chemistry professor at California Institute of Technology.
Credit: Lance Hayashida/CALTECH

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

Imagine being in seventh grade, given unlimited access to a chemical stockroom, and encouraged to run reactions. Developing a love of chemistry would be hard to avoid.

Case in point: Theodor Agapie, an assistant chemistry professor at California Institute of Technology. He was given this kid-in-a-candy-store experience, thanks to a chemistry teacher who supported and encouraged his interest in the central science. The experience hooked Agapie, who is being honored by ACS for his work in organometallic chemistry.

“The changing colors, bright precipitates, and loud pops were irresistible,” Agapie recalls. “I had fantastic mentors along the way who stimulated and supported my interests in chemistry. I am deeply indebted to all of them, and my family, for nurturing my passion.”

Agapie, 33, now leads a research group that focuses on the study of multimetallic complexes supported by small organic ligands for new reaction chemistry and as models for complicated protein active sites. His research group has synthesized the first well-defined complex containing a CaMn3O4 cubane moiety, which is structurally similar to the one found in the oxygen-evolving complexes of photosystem II, an enzyme involved in photosynthesis.

Through structure-reactivity studies of the CaMn3O4 cluster, the Agapie lab has gained a better understanding of the effect of calcium, the redox-inactive metal, on the chemistry of the cluster. The group discovered that the reduction potential of mixed-transition-metal oxide clusters is affected greatly by the nature of the redox-inactive metal. This finding has implications for both biological and heterogeneous systems and is expected to have applications in the design of practical water oxidation catalysts.

“Agapie has done truly groundbreaking work on well-defined inorganic clusters that mimic the active sites of biological catalysts,” says Harry B. Gray, a chemistry professor at Caltech. “His model provides very strong support for cluster high oxidation states proposed to be key intermediates in the catalytic cycle for O2 generation.”

Moving forward, Agapie plans to study catalysis in solar-energy-to-fuels conversion. Here, Agapie plans to look at practical catalysts for biomass conversion, carbon dioxide reduction, and water splitting by using design strategies inspired by biological catalysts.

“Chemical synthesis is at the center of our approach, as I believe that many of the reactions of interest require new types of molecular architectures,” Agapie says. “I hope that by training and working with a group of scientists with broad backgrounds, we will be able to interrogate these problems from a multitude of facets and find good solutions. And the most important part of it is that we will have a good time doing it.

“I am very honored and thrilled to have received this award,” Agapie says, “particularly because I think it provides recognition for the efforts of my entire research team. I have been lucky to work with a group of very talented young scientists who made possible the discoveries noted in this award.”

Agapie earned a B.S. in chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001 and a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from Caltech in 2007. He joined the Caltech faculty in 2009.

Agapie will present the award address before the ACS Division of Inorganic Chemistry.


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