Synthetic Chemistry, Ethics and a Little Pixie Dust
Rory Waterman calls himself an ethical chemist. He explains that he's on the trail of best the catalyst to make important reactions play out without waste. And for him, eliminating waste is a matter of ethics. He works on a key frontier for the synthetic inorganic chemist, in the booming field called organometallics, which shares the tricks of organic and inorganic chemistry and much more. Catalysts have been speeding up reactions in chemistry since the dawn of American industry, creating bonds with carbon and all the elements central to mining and manufacturing. Waterman's work, in the chemistry department at the University of Vermont, is on a whole new plane, involving the newest challenges in organometallic chemistry. "Our overall method is to develop catalytic reactions, those that use a small amount of an additive," he said. "In essence, this is chemical pixie dust. You sprinkle in a catalyst and it makes a reaction that was slow or difficult a lot easier." Waterman admits he's no expert on pixie dust, but his lab is on the leading edge of designing new uses for catalysts and efficient ways to recover them when their work is done. Waterman's focus is catalysts used with a group of metals that includes phosphorus and its neighbors in the Periodic Table of Elements, a step up in difficulty from catalysts that bond with nitrogen and oxygen. "The methods don't broadly exist for these molecules," he said. The phosphorus molecules have interesting electrical properties, he says, and could play roles in LED displays, for example. "But to use these molecules, it's now quite wasteful," Waterman says. "It's a kind of social justice issue." In the Periodic Table, elements are grouped into blocks, based on the behavior of their electrons. The group that Waterman works with is called p-block elements. He focuses on a location that contains heavier p-block elements, like nitrogen, phosphorus and arsenic. A few years ago, Waterman's lab made a discovery about arsenic, finding how to produce a specific reaction that goes by the hefty name of Alpha arsenidene elimination. They came up with improved methods to achieve that difficult set of reactions. "We now hope to push that reactivity to phosphorus," he said, "to see if the process works for heavier elements. If it does, we want to push it up to that level." What will it take to achieve that? "I wish I knew," Waterman said with a laugh. "From the arsenic chemistry, now we will try to emulate that for phosphorus. All options are open. We'll do it from a variety of angles, in hopes of getting that event to occur in a single complex, or system." Transition metals, those that fall between two important groups in the Period Tables, are among the best friends of the synthetic chemist. Waterman hopes to build his catalysis reactions using models that involve transition metals like iridium and zirconium. "We're going to look at a variety of different ways, a multipronged approach." If he succeeds, industry will no doubt be watching. "We will be far closer then to the applications that we foresee," he says. "We will try, in house, to build these molecules, but it will all be of interest to industry." As an undergraduate at the University of Rochester, Waterman worked on paramagnetic metalloproteins. "Then I discovered I liked to make things, so I moved to synthetic chemistry." He received his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago and did postdoctoral study at UC Berkeley. It took a sophomore class in organic chemistry to hook him. "I thought, What a spectacular idea!" he recalled. "I went from organic chemistry to organometallo chemistry. Things only got better." Recently his parents visited him at his home in Burlington, bringing a chemistry set from their basement that they thought he'd recognize. "They thought I had played with it," he said. "Not so. Didn't know it was ever there." Whatever he missed, he's been filling in the gaps, from organometallics to ethics to pixie dust.
Rory Waterman's Teaching Plans
Waterman plans to use the basics of research as a way to recruit students, starting with intermediate school classes near the University of Vermont. He says that students often show an interest in science, or chemistry in particular, but have no idea how to get going. He hopes to build a clearinghouse website to help them find the resources they need. Meanwhile, he hopes to use his own university students to help create a science literacy-based course for those schools. His students would learn to master the theory and techniques involved in a number of common conceptual demonstrations. They would take those demonstrations into schools. The benefit would be for younger students to see college-age students as role models, giving them an incentive to learn the science, even if they were not going to move into science careers. Waterman will use a small course designed as a freshman seminar at Vermont to recruit students to take part in school visits. "I am shooting for students who are not doing science, and the goal in schools is basic science literacy. The college students will have to master this, to understand it all well enough to explain it to kids of the right age. And who knows? We might be able to entice some of the kids into science."