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Gabor A. Somorjai Award For Creative Research In Catalysis

by William G. Schulz
February 2, 2015 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 93, Issue 5

Credit: Lars Sahl/UNC Department of Chemistry
Maurice S. Brookhart, a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Credit: Lars Sahl/UNC Department of Chemistry

Sponsored by the Gabor A. & Judith K. Somorjai Endowment Fund

In addition to being a top-notch scientist, Maurice S. Brookhart, a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, “is a person of immense warmth and integrity,” says one of his colleagues.

He is not only inventive, “he is also one of the most incisive scientists I know when it comes to mechanistic studies. He never ceases to amaze me with his ability to get the right answer, insofar as it can be known,” says another.

Brookhart has made tremendous contributions to the field of catalysis, including fundamental insights and the development of groundbreaking new systems, in areas of chemistry including cyclopropanation and alkane conversions, writes one of his nominators. Early work concerned synthesis of metal carbene complexes and their use in asymmetric cyclopropanation of olefins.

In the 1980s, Brookhart and Malcolm Green of Oxford University jointly recognized that direct metal coordination of a C–H bond in an alkyl ligand or alkane molecule can promote olefin insertion into a metal alkyl bond or mediate hydrocarbon C–H bond activation. The realization that this bonding mode was unexpectedly widespread led them to define this interaction as an agostic bond—a term now widely adopted within the organometallic community—and directed Brookhart and his group toward the design of new cobalt alkyl compounds that catalyze the living poly­merization of ethylene, a precise version of the reaction. He then developed rhodium catalysts for the selective dimerization of acrylates and palladium catalysts for perfectly alternating olefin/carbon monoxide copolymerization, including isoselective versions that produce copolymers with main-chain chirality.

Among Brookhart’s most important contributions are the discoveries of single-site olefin polymerization catalysts that produce new types of polymers from common monomers, including ethylene and propylene. He has played a major role in the invention of well-defined metal catalysts that are derived from discrete organotransition metal precursors. With these, polymer chemists may now predictably carry out the synthesis of completely new families of polyolefins that are revolutionary in their structures.

Most recently, Brookhart and Alan Goldman of Rutgers University have developed a tandem catalyst system for alkane metathesis that uses two catalysts: one for dehydrogenation/hydrogenation and another for olefin metathesis. The potential value for this work is vast, say colleagues, because it could help satisfy rapidly increasing global demand for high-molecular-weight alkanes for diesel and jet fuel.

Brookhart, 72, received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1964 from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. degree in physical organic chemistry in 1968 from the University of California, Los Angeles. After two postdoctoral fellowships, including a NATO postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Southampton, in England, in 1968, he became a faculty member at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1969. He has been with the university ever since and today is the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Chemistry. He is a recipient of the ACS Chicago Section’s Willard Gibbs Medal (2010), ACS Awards in Polymer Chemistry (2003) and Organometallic Chemistry (1992), and an Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award (1994) from ACS, among many other honors and distinctions.

Brookhart will present his award address before the Division of Catalysis Science & Technology and the Division of Inorganic Chemistry.


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