Chemist Robert H. Grubbs of South Pasadena, Calif., will be honored April 3 by the world's largest scientific society for his achievements in designing more efficient catalysts, molecules that can assemble polymers or pharmaceuticals. He will receive the 2001 Herbert C. Brown Award for Creative Research in Synthetic Methods from the American Chemical Society at its 221st national meeting in San Diego.
"What we do is design and make catalysts," said Grubbs, who is Atkins professor of chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena. Like highly skilled construction workers, catalysts make possible the building of structures - in this case, molecular structures, one after another - without themselves being incorporated into the assembly.
His starting materials are usually molecules containing at least one carbon atom double-bonded to another. "I work with [these] olefins because they're often building blocks for polymers, pharmaceuticals and petrochemicals. So it's a basic technique with wide application," he said.
For example, Grubbs's catalysts can open an unstable ring within an olefin and hook the loose ends together with another, forming a chain. The result is a polymer whose chain length and properties are tailor-made, said Grubbs, adding that such materials could make pipes for corrosive environments - golf clubs and bats, for example.
He is also working in basic pharmaceutical research, Grubbs added: "We're trying to find new ways to put the carbon-carbon double bonds wherever we want. These are useful starting materials to later add functional groups to them," with the precision the drug industry requires.
Grubbs said he didn't set out to become a laboratory chemist originally. "I went to college to be an agriculture major," he explained. "But I spent one summer studying sheep and steers and another working in an organic lab. I decided I wanted to work with 'dead' things, not live ones."