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Mimicking nature's chemistry to solve global environmental problems

What many people might call the daily laboratory grind Theodore Betley, Ph.D., calls play. As a student, he developed a passion for lab work that could now pay off for the rest of the world. Today, he will present pioneering work that could help turn greenhouse gases into useful products during "The Kavli Foundation Emerging Leader in Chemistry Lecture" at the 249th National Meeting & Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS).

"Our goal is to answer the questions: How do you take the sea of gases that makes up our atmosphere and convert that into liquid fuels?" Betley says. "Or how do you remediate greenhouse gases and turn them into something usable for the chemical industry?"

The key to answering these big-picture questions and others is getting a better grasp on how nature works, says Betley, who is a professor of inorganic chemistry at Harvard University.

"Nature has evolved over billions of years to convert nitrogen from the atmosphere into fertilizer or to harness solar energy to split water into oxygen and protons and electrons," he explains. "As chemists, we're trying to catch up in order to do those transformations ourselves."

Inorganic chemists design new catalysts that can spur such transformations along. But it's not an easy task. Betley says the field's top scientists in the 1960s started creating catalytic clusters that copy nature's strategy, relying on several underdog metals rather than just one heavy hitter to get a reaction going.

Betley's lab is now at the forefront of such efforts. They've developed novel materials that are extremely efficient at prompting reactions to take place in the lab. Harnessing the ability to drive and control these reactions could help provide new solutions for reducing levels of greenhouse gases that contribute to global warming. The reactions could remove those gases from the air and turn them into chemical products in high demand that industry now gets in less sustainable ways.

Betley's path toward this potential turning point in the field started when he was an undergraduate student, he says. Through a series of internships in various labs, he developed a near-compulsive desire to understand chemical reactions on a fundamental level.

"What I discovered in my first interactions in the lab was just a passion for the minutiae," he says. "I didn't have one of those defining moments as a kid when I set my barn on fire and said, 'Holy smokes -- I need to learn more about combustion.' To be honest, I think I entered undergraduate studies being very uncertain about what I wanted to do."

But by the time he completed his degree in chemical engineering, Betley knew there were provocative questions in inorganic chemistry that he wanted to answer, so he went to graduate school. Now, he's chipping away at those questions and turning them into novel solutions.

Betley will present his talk Monday, March 23, at the Colorado Convention Center, Bellco Theater.

He has received funding from the National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, the National Institutes of Health and the U.S. Air Force.

The Kavli lecture series is a result of a collaboration between ACS and The Kavli Foundation, an internationally recognized philanthropic organization known for its support of basic scientific innovation.

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The above story is based on materials provided by American Chemical Society (ACS). Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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