2009 Cava Lecture: Richard R. Schrock


How Basic Research in Chemistry Led to a Nobel Prize
5:00 PM, Wednesday, April 29th, 2009
107 Shelby Hall
(General Interest Talk)

Thousands of Catalysts for Olefin Metathesis: Variability, Longevity, and Asymmetry at the Metal
12:45 PM, Thursday, April 30th, 2009
151 Shelby Hall
(Technical Talk)


Richard R. Schrock is the Frederick G. Keyes Professor of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.  He was born on January 4, 1945, the third of three boys, in Berne, a farming town in Northeast Indiana.  His older brother gave him a chemistry set for his 8th birthday, which sparked his interest in science and chemistry in particular.  The family moved near San Diego, California, when Richard was 14.  He graduated from Mission Bay High School in Pacific Beach, California, in 1963, and the University of California at Riverside in 1967, where he worked on atmospheric chemistry with Prof. James L. Pitts.  A course taught by Fred Hawthorne attracted him into inorganic chemistry, and Jerry Bell encouraged him to apply to Harvard for graduate school.  He received his Ph.D. degree from Harvard in 1971 under the direction of John Osborn, who had been a student of Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson at Imperial College, London.

Richard met Nancy Carlson in 1969, while he was in graduate school.  They married in August 1971, soon after he defended his dissertation.  For one year (1971-72) Richard was an NIH post-doctoral fellow at Cambridge University, where he worked with Jack Lewis (later Lord Lewis). He was hired by DuPont to work in the Central Research Department at the Experimental Station in Wilmington, Delaware, where he shared a lab with Fred Tebbe.  At DuPont Richard discovered a new type of alkylidene complex, an unusually stable trineopentylneopentylidenetantalum species.  In 1975 Richard was invited to become a faculty member at MIT, where he has been ever since.  His wife added a master’s degree in art history to her graduate degree in library science and learned bookbinding through an apprenticeship. Their sons Andrew and Eric were born in 1978 and 1981, respectively.  Nancy worked for 9 years at Harvard and has held an endowed position as the rare book conservator at MIT since 2007.

Richard shared the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Robert H. Grubbs and Yves Chauvin for contributions to olefin metathesis in organic synthesis.  Schrock was recognized for designing and isolating a wide variety of molybdenum and tungsten species that function as initiators for the olefin metathesis reaction.  “Schrock carbenes” are named after him.  In 2009 Richard expects to publish his 500th paper.  He has trained a total of ~150 graduate and postdoctoral students.

His largest research area today concerns molybdenum and tungsten alkylidene complexes (M=CHR).  Recently he discovered a fundamentally new class of unusual “stereogenic-at-metal” metathesis complexes with high metathesis activity and unusual behavior in terms of fundamental inorganic and catalytic chemistry.  These new catalysts are expected to be of significant utility for the synthesis of organic molecules and new polymers.  These SM (stereogenic metal) alkylidene complexes hold a great deal of promise for future developments in metathesis chemistry.

A second area of interest in the Schrock group is the catalytic reduction of dinitrogen.  In 2003 Schrock discovered how to reduce dinitrogen catalytically with protons, electrons, a molybdenum catalyst, and an efficiency in reducing equivalents of ~65%.  This is the first time that dinitrogen has been reduced catalytically in an abiological manner at room temperature and pressure in over forty years of research. These results suggest that the single molybdenum center in FeMo nitrogenase may be the site of the reduction of dinitrogen to ammonia.  A wide variety of related triamidoamine ligands for Mo have been prepared and evaluated for catalytic reduction of dinitrogen.  It is possible that an abiological catalytic dinitrogen reduction eventually might replace the energy-intensive Haber-Bosch process, which is the way ammonia is prepared today on a scale of >100 M tons per year.