HIS CHEMICAL ROMANCE

Joanna Allerhand

When associate chemistry professor Sonbinh Nguyen heard the announcement on the radio at 5:30 a.m., he ran to his computer to double-check the details.

On Oct. 5, his Ph.D. advisor of five years won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for the project they had worked on together when Nguyen was a graduate student. The project was Nguyen’s doctoral thesis.

The 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to three men, one of them being Dr. Robert H. Grubbs, Nguyen’s former advisor. Each man helped develop metathesis, a major step in green chemistry that can now enable plastics manufacturing and drug research to be cleaner, cheaper and more efficient.

Working under Grubbs at the California Institute of Technology, Nguyen helped prepare the first molecules that formed the basis of the technology.

“He was an outstanding student who worked hard and made many contributions to my research program,” Grubbs said in an e-mail interview.

Applications of the technology came later, Nguyen said. It was initially developed as an academic curiosity.

Once the technology became available, “Other people found the applications,” Nguyen said. And we “designed the next (step) to fill the voids of where the earlier (technology) didn’t work.”

Assistant chemistry professor Karl Scheidt uses metathesis in his research to advance cancer chemotherapy.

“Metathesis is facilitating cancer research at the molecular level like no other chemical reaction can,” Scheidt said.

The process can also be used to create alternatives to fossil fuels. Oil made from agricultural products can be turned into molecules that can be used as fuel in a car, Nguyen said.

Metathesis involves using a catalyst to break double bonds between two sets of carbon atoms. The carbon atoms then switch partners to form new molecules.

Adding the catalyst makes it possible to perform this reaction in fewer steps and produce much less waste than previous methods.

Nguyen helped create the first generation of catalysts used in metathesis.

This molecule was much easier to use than anything else available. The Grubbs catalyst is also relatively easy to produce, Nguyen said.

“It is like brewing beer,” he said. Making the alternative catalyst, he said, is like making a fine wine. It takes a lot of time. The alternative also only works under certain conditions.

Grubbs is not the first Nobel Laureate Nguyen has worked for. In 2001, his post-doctoral advisor, K. Barry Sharpless at the Scripps Research Institute, was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on synthetic chemistry.

About his luck with working on high-profile research, Nguyen said, “I was just there at the right place at the right time. If it wasn’t me, it would have been somebody else.”

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