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Power of applied chemistry

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Nobel laureate Richard R. Schrock will speak at UD in a new lecture series

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​​​

​Richard R. Schrock shares the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry for contributions to olefin metathesis. He will be presenting some of his lab’s recent findings at the upcoming “Power of Applied Chemistry” seminar, co-hosted by UD and Chemours. ​

​Nobel Laureate Richard R. Schrock will deliver the inaugural Power of Applied Chemistry seminar on Tuesday, April 25. This in-person event, which is open to all members of the University of Delaware community, will take place at 3 p.m. in the Audion at STAR Tower followed by a reception at 4 p.m. Registration is requested at the College of Engineering events page.

Schrock is the F.G. Keyes Professor Emeritus at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Distinguished Professor and George K. Helmkamp Founder’s Chair of Chemistry at University of California, Riverside. He shares the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry with Robert H. Grubbs and Yves Chauvin for contributions to an organic synthesis technique known as olefin metathesis. This is one of organic chemistry’s most important reactions, where carbon atom double bonds are broken and remade in ways that cause atom groups to change places, and has enabled researchers to create important molecules such as new pharmaceuticals.

Schrock has published more than 625 research papers and supervised over 200 doctoral students and postdocs. He is also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Sciences, and is a Foreign Member of the Royal Society.

In advance of the event, Schrock shared what has motivated him throughout his decorated academic career, what he’ll be presenting during his seminar and what the concept of the “power of applied chemistry” means to him.

Q: What types of research problems motivate you?

Schrock: While my research is very focused on fundamental chemistry, we also want to make compounds that improve our understanding of catalytic reactions and that can be used in industry. Overall, I think it’s important to work on problems that have the potential to change the field.

Q: How did your time working at DuPont’s Experimental Station influence your career trajectory?

Schrock: At the Experimental Station, we had all the instrumentation, chemicals, funding, and equipment we needed to make new discoveries.

It was while I was working at DuPont in 1974 that I made a discovery that drew me to this problem with olefin metathesis. I was interested in alkyl groups and early transition metals like tantalum, and as I was starting to think about interesting chemical compounds I could make, one of our consultants gave a lecture on a compound that had six methyl groups around a tungsten atom.

I thought that work was really cool, and because tungsten is ‘next door’ to tantalum on the periodic table, I thought I could make a compound of a tantalum atom that had five methyl groups around it. That compound was unstable, and so I moved on to using larger alkyl groups. In that process, I observed this reaction called alpha abstraction where you make a metal-carbon double bond. I can still remember that day: It was such a revolutionary thing that I really didn’t expect. But that’s the nature of discoveries — you don't really expect them.

Q: What have you been working on since your Nobel prize-winning discovery?

Schrock: In 2005 I received the Nobel Prize for contributions to organic chemistry. But back then, there was still a lot of organometallic chemistry to be done, and we knew very little compared to what we know now.

When I came to UC Riverside in 2018, there were still a number of unsolved problems in the field of organometallic chemistry. One of those was how alkylidene complexes, which are catalysts for olefin metathesis, are formed from olefins. Then, two years ago, we made a discovery about the general method for making these alkylidenes. It goes back to work I did at MIT in 1978 with tantalum that, again, turned out to be alpha abstraction. This is what I’ll be presenting at my upcoming seminar at UD, “Mo and W-Based Olefin Metathesis Catalysts are formed from Metallacyclopentanes.”

It's a finding that we never expected and that has us all really excited. It’s also very satisfying because I discovered the reaction and it's very pleasing to be able to say that I just rediscovered it with tungsten.

Q: What comes to mind when you think of the seminar series title “The power of applied chemistry”?

Schrock: When I look around, everything is chemistry — from the plants outside my window to the complex chemical reactions done by the human body. And because of that, chemistry is powerful.

But with chemistry, you have to know the basics, and you have to understand it thoroughly to be able to use it. But when you do understand it, you’ll be able to apply chemistry to solve problems that you didn’t even know existed before. And that's the power of applied chemistry.

The Power of Applied Chemistry Seminar Series, presented by Chemours and the University of Delaware, promotes the advancement of chemistry, materials and engineering education and research through academic and industry partnership.​

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​ Article by Erica K. Brockmeier, photo courtesy of Richard Schrock, illustration by Joy Smoker 

Published April 20, 2023​

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