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National Fresenius Award

by Amanda Yarnell
February 25, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 8

Credit: Claudio Cambon
This is a mug of Theodore A. Betley, Harvard University inorganic chemist.
Credit: Claudio Cambon

Sponsored by Phi Lambda Upsilon, the National Chemistry Honor Society

Professionally speaking, Theodore A. Betley’s proudest moment came two years ago. “That’s when I realized that I was no longer the fountain of ideas,” says the Harvard University inorganic chemist. After Betley mentored his lab group for only four years, members “were coming up with their own ideas—not just good ideas but ones that were so much better than my own,” he recalls. “It felt great.”

That’s saying something. Daniel G. Nocera, who guided Betley’s postdoctoral work at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, calls the 35-year-old “one of the most creative young chemists in the world today.”

Part of Betley’s lab is devoted to building metal clusters that can carry out concerted multielectron redox reactions. The inspiration comes from the photosynthetic machinery found in plants, which rely on protein-embedded metal clusters to convert sunlight into chemical energy. “Nobody has been bold enough to attack the problem of concerted multielectron transfer from a multimetallic center, as performed in nature. Ted has, and he has done so successfully,” says Nocera, who has since moved to Harvard. “He is teaching the field much about how to systematically alter electronic structure to engender unprecedented multielectron redox properties.”

Indeed, among the multimetallic assemblies Betley’s lab has built are cobalt and manganese ones that might be useful as building blocks for artificial photosynthetic systems. This part of Betley’s work “lies at the heart of chemical solutions to global energy needs,” says California Institute of Technology inorganic chemist Jonas C. Peters.

The rest of Betley’s lab is trying to build porphyrin-inspired iron complexes that can mediate nitrogen group transfer reactions. Betley’s dipyrro­methane iron complexes can carry out catalytic aziridination of olefins as well as intermolecular amination of C–H bonds with alkyl azides. This kind of reactivity has never before been seen in porphyrin chemistry, Nocera says, and is “a harbinger of an exciting new horizon in inorganic chemistry.”

The key to Betley’s success as a young faculty member is his fearlessness, colleagues say. “The electronic structural issues in his areas of interest would scare off many young investigators who want results quickly, but not Betley,” says Eric N. Jacobsen, chair of Harvard’s chemistry and chemical biology department.

A native of Michigan, Betley says he was a late bloomer when it came to chemistry. It wasn’t until he had nearly earned his bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan that he discovered his love of synthesis and the fundamental manipulation of matter. Betley went on to earn his Ph.D. in chemistry with Peters at Caltech in 2005. He completed a postdoc at MIT in Nocera’s lab before joining Harvard’s faculty in 2007. Since then his honors include a National Science Foundation Career Award and MIT Technology Review’s TR35 Young Innovator Award.

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



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