September 8, 2011

Finding a catalyst for breakthrough research

photo of Liang Zhan

Liang Zhang, Foreign Postdoctoral Researcher

Organometallic Chemistry Laboratory, RIKEN Advanced Science Institute

What do you do at RIKEN?

I work as a foreign postdoctoral researcher in the Organometallic Chemistry Laboratory at the RIKEN Advanced Science Institute. Our group focuses on the development of new organometallic catalysts for efficient organic synthesis. I am interested in the activation and utilization of carbon dioxide, which is causing great concern worldwide for its increased emission levels. I am trying to find suitable catalysts based on copper to facilitate the insertion of CO2 into the framework of organic molecules. Such reactions generate carboxylic acids and derivatives, which are widely used in pharmaceuticals, agrichemicals and dyes.

How and when did you join RIKEN?

After my PhD thesis defense, I applied for a Japan Society for the Promotion of Science Postdoctoral Fellowship. In September 2009, I joined the research group of Dr Zhaomin Hou, who had previously given an interesting chemistry lecture at my university. I became a foreign postdoctoral researcher in the same laboratory in March 2011.

What attracted you to RIKEN?

I was attracted by the amazing research at RIKEN that spans the whole spectrum of natural sciences. RIKEN also provides researchers with a range of sophisticated facilities and good financial support. The Japanese culture is also quite appealing, which makes Japan a wonderful place for young researchers.

How was the transition to life at RIKEN?

From the start of my time at RIKEN, I have lived in the cozy and convenient environment of the RIKEN International House. Preparations made for my arrival beforehand, such as providing an ID card and computer, made my start at RIKEN go smoothly. Everyone in this group is kind and helpful.

Please tell us about your research or other work at RIKEN.

Our work focuses on developing efficient methods for converting a mixture of CO2 and several different organic molecules at atmospheric pressure into carboxylic acids and esters to produce high yields of the desired compounds. Our methods have the unique advantages of employing CO2 as an abundant, inexpensive, nontoxic carbon source. The process also uses unactivated organic molecules as substrates, and relatively cheap copper complexes as catalysts. This approach provides an economical and environmentally friendly process for synthesizing valuable compounds from CO2. Moreover, careful capture and characterization have allowed us to achieve important insights into the mechanistic details of these transformations.

What have been the highlights of your time at RIKEN so far?

The most exciting thing for me is that we have already partially achieved our research goals. The catalysts we designed work well for CO2 activation and the reaction process we anticipated was confirmed by our experiments. I have even managed to capture several reaction intermediates, which are very important for understanding reaction mechanisms. Two of our research papers, published in Angewandte Chemie International Edition, drew immediate attention from the academic community and the media.

What has been the best thing about working at RIKEN?

Besides the advanced facilities and generous financial support, RIKEN provides a very good platform for academic exchange. Since it is an international institute, researchers come from a diverse range of countries and research fields. Numerous high-level workshops and symposia are conducted on campus, so we get many opportunities to learn things beyond our main field.

What would you say to other people considering joining RIKEN?

RIKEN is not only a world-famous institute where you can do good research, it is also a nice place to make friends and learn about different cultures. RIKEN researchers endeavor to contribute to a better society while enjoying the natural beauty of a peaceful campus.