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New Center to Study Strong Bonds

Story by
Tiffanie Matthews

A strong bond is a great asset in a marriage or investment portfolio. But in a chemistry laboratory, it’s a different story. 

Strong bonds in a molecule are a challenge for chemists because they are notoriously difficult to alter. Some methods are so harsh that other bonds in the molecule, often weaker ones, are broken too. What is needed is a way to break selected bonds but not others, enabling chemists to then form new bonds and create new compounds.

Karen Goldberg (front row, center) with UW faculty and students working on Center projects. These include (clockwise from back left) Michael Heinekey, Ernest Davidson, Andrew Pawlikowski, Wes Borden, James Mayer, Bridget Williams, Goldberg, Susan Klock, a

Karen Goldberg (front row, center) with UW faculty and students working on Center projects. These include (clockwise from back left) Michael Heinekey, Ernest Davidson, Andrew Pawlikowski, Wes Borden, James Mayer, Bridget Williams, Goldberg, Susan Klock, and Mira Kanzelberger.

To address this challenge, Karen Goldberg, professor in the UW Department of Chemistry, is leading a new national research center at the University of Washington: the Center for Activation and Transformation of Strong Bonds. The center is one of three chemical bonding centers established by the National Science Foundation as a means of seeking solutions to major problems in chemistry. Each center will receive $1.5 million for the first three years and may receive $2 million to $3 million a year for up to five more years, with the potential for further renewal.

What sorts of chemicals and compounds might this research involve? One important molecule of interest to the center is methane. Methane, the major component in natural gas, is abundant but often found in remote places and difficult to transport. Transformed into liquid fuels like methanol, it is more easily transported, but a strong chemical bond—in this case, a carbon-hydrogen bond—makes such a transformation difficult. “It currently requires a big facility and a substantial amount of energy to do this,” says Goldberg, “so a lot of methane gas in isolated places currently can’t be used.”

With the establishment of the Center, scientists can tackle such problems collaboratively and share their expertise. Goldberg is joined by four other UW researchers as well as scientists from six other institutions. 

“Our projects will all be collaborative, with two or more investigators involved with each project,” says Goldberg, who envisions frequent communication across institutions though bi-monthly Internet videoconferences.

Looking ahead, Goldberg believes that finding ways to transform strong chemical bonds could enable scientists to use inexpensive, readily available, and less hazardous raw materials to make new and existing products with fewer and less harmful byproducts. The same processes also might be useful for, among other things, synthesizing pharmaceuticals, plastics, and materials for electronics.

“If we get some of this to really work, it could reap substantial benefits for the consumer,” says Goldberg. “It’s very much a long-term project, but with a group of us working together, this is a great opportunity to make real progress.”