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ACS Award In Organometallic Chemistry

by Nader Heidari
February 24, 2014 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 92, Issue 8

Credit: Courtesy of Kenneth Caulton
This is a photo of Kenneth G. Caulton.
Credit: Courtesy of Kenneth Caulton

Sponsored by the Dow Chemical Co. Foundation

From nitrogen fixation to hydrogen production, Kenneth G. Caulton’s areas of study have been both far-reaching and timely. Caulton has made outstanding contributions to the field of organometallic chemistry, specifically his research into C–H and C–F bond activation, polyhydride reactivity, and solution dynamics, as well as the study of unusual geometries and electronic structures of late-transition-metal complexes.

Caulton, 72, received a B.A. in chemistry from Carleton College in 1962 and a Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in 1967. After postdoctoral research with F. Albert Cotton at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he joined the Indiana University faculty. Originally trained as an experimental chemist, Caulton, now a distinguished professor of chemistry, spent his first few years focusing on experimental inorganic chemistry. Once density-functional theory, which is used to design quantum mechanical models of the electronic structure of molecules, came to fruition, Caulton’s curiosity for the theoretical was piqued.

“With density-functional theory, there were much more quantitative results, which would apply to real-world molecules of considerable complexity,” he says. “These were the very same molecules you would work on in the laboratory.”

His collaboration with computational chemist Odile Eisenstein benefited Caulton’s research. Together, they helped unite experimental and theoretical findings in organometallic chemistry.

Collaboration “permitted me to integrate computational results and origins of experimental results,” Caulton says. “Computational results allowed me to understand the causal factors in organometallic chemistry.”

He says he has a penchant for “high risk, high reward” research targets. Although they don’t always pan out, he believes the knowledge produced by his and colleagues’ efforts has contributed to advances in inorganic and organometallic chemistry, made possible only through a rich network of collaborations with skilled experts around the world.

“I guess I have a maverick approach to my science, seeking origins of general trends and underlying principles,” Caulton says. “And, where it’s appropriate, I’m always interested in doubting the veracity of some results,” he adds. “It’s a good way to make discoveries.”

And discoveries he has made: There are more than 500 publications that bear his name. He has done extensive work on the dynamics of organometallic systems using dynamic NMR and has characterized many molecules with unusually bonded ligands.

Caulton is tremendously excited about his current work involving “noninnocent ligands” that are used in redox reactions. Usually, redox reactions in metal complexes occur on the metal, but in these cases they occur on the ligand. “Noninnocent ligands may have tremendous potential for catalysis,” he says.

Caulton is especially interested in molecules that have energy-related applications, such as energy storage through hydrogen formation and reduction of carbon dioxide.

Those who nominated Caulton for this award did so not only on the basis of his research but also on his mentorship. More than 50 students have graduated from Caulton’s lab with a Ph.D., and many have gone on to have successful scientific careers. “We really owe everything to their willingness to enter into our mad, maverick projects,” he says.

In his free time, Caulton enjoys the outdoors, including fishing and canoeing. He also visits Russia with his wife in the summer. He has survived a Russian winter as well and has the frostbitten fingers to prove it.

Caulton will present the award address before the Division of Inorganic Chemistry.


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