Chirik Earns Moore Foundation’s New Grant for ‘Green Chemistry’

By Wendy Plump
Thursday, Jul. 21, 2022

Princeton Chemistry’s Paul Chirik is among the first chemists in the nation to receive funding from the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation’s “exploration phase” grants in support of green chemistry.

Once considered an oxymoron, green chemistry has enjoyed a new vigor in recent years as the central science takes up the banner to find chemical solutions for everything from carbon dioxide uptake to closed-loop recycling to the replacement of toxic catalysts in industrial processes.

Chirik’s $1M, three-year grant was announced by the Foundation this month for his proposal, Iron Catalysts for a Biorenewable Hydrocarbon Future.

“Paul is a leading expert in sustainable catalysis, which is an area of particular importance within green chemistry,” said Adam Jones, a program officer in science with the Moore Foundation. “We look forward to supporting his work and also having Paul provide the Foundation with expert advice.” 

Princeton Chemistry’s Paul Chirik, the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Chemistry.
Princeton Chemistry’s Paul Chirik, the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Chemistry.
Photo by Jonathan Darmon

“Of course, I’m thrilled. It’s game changing because it is freedom to operate and to explore new areas of research,” said Chirik, the Edwards S. Sanford Professor of Chemistry.

Grants like this one, he added, will enable new technologies that transition us from traditional petroleum- and fossil fuel-based hydrocarbon building blocks to those that are bio-derived and renewable. Right now, conventional hydrocarbon products underlie many of our consumer goods from medicines to fuels to plastics. Transformative approaches are imperative.

In his broad proposal, Chirik sets out a mission to discover sustainable, low-impact catalysts that will promote these transformations as society seeks pathways to a more carbon-neutral economy. 

The Chirik Lab will address this challenge through iron catalysis. 

Today, at least 90% of industrial-scale chemical reactions rely on catalysis and 35% of the world’s GDP is based on catalytic processes. Yet many catalysts contain transition metals like palladium, platinum, and rhodium that are expensive and among the least terrestrially abundant on Earth.

In addition, mining these metals has a terrible impact on the environment. For example, obtaining just one ounce of platinum, a metal used in catalysis to prepare the silicone adhesives in shipping labels, requires the extraction of 10 tons of earth at least a mile deep.

As an alternative, the Chirik Lab has pioneered the concept of “modern alchemy,” whereby ligand design is used to coax the reactivity of iron, cobalt, and other Earth-abundant metals to mimic or ideally surpass the performance of precious metals. 

When Chirik presents on the topic, he begins where most chemists begin: with the Periodic Table of Elements. But his take-away is markedly different. He challenges listeners with a realistic appraisal of the societal needs and behaviors that drive consumption.

“Everyone talks about carbon, ‘We have to reduce carbon.’ But that’s only one element on the Periodic Table. There are 92 other elements we should be thinking about. Ask yourself how many of those elements you use in 24 hours—you’d be surprised. And we have to worry about all of them,” said Chirik.

“Over the next century, catalysis will be called upon to solve many of society’s outstanding challenges, including sustainability, climate, renewable energy and the discovery of revolutionary medicines. 

“The use of more Earth-abundant transition metals as catalysts, like iron, is attractive to not only improve economics and to increase supply-chain robustness, but also to reduce the global warming potential of many industrial processes.”

Funding for the grant begins next month.

Based in Palo Alto, CA, the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation fosters path-breaking scientific discovery, environmental conservation, and patient care improvements, as well as the preservation of the special character of the San Francisco Bay Area. Gordon Moore is the co-founder and chairman emeritus of Intel Corporation.