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News Release 04-109

NSF Launches Chemical Bonding Centers Program

Initiative targets highly innovative research

August 27, 2004

This material is available primarily for archival purposes. Telephone numbers or other contact information may be out of date; please see current contact information at media contacts.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) has announced its first three Chemical Bonding Centers--multi-faceted research groups that will each tackle a “big problem” in chemistry, in an atmosphere that’s intended to be flexible, tolerant of risk, and open to thinking far outside the box.

The new Chemical Bonding Centers (CBCs) will be based at the Massachusetts General Hospital, the University of California at Santa Barbara, and the University of Washington. Their respective goals, discussed in more detail below, are to synthesize artificial chemical systems that can undergo Darwinian evolution; to carry out the rational design of materials having new kinds of electrical, magnetic, and optical properties; and to explore new kinds of “green chemistry,” in which materials can be synthesized on an industrial scale using environmentally friendly methods.

The initiative, says Philip B. Shevlin, one of the NSF program officers who manages the CBC program, “we wanted to encourage very talented people to attack major problems that would engage the public and have a long-term societal benefit—and that would not be what they were already doing.”

Because problems of this type will almost always require many investigators and many kinds of expertise, adds Shevlin, he and his colleagues also looked for a new level of agility and flexibility in the centers’ organization. “So if the research leads off in unexpected directions,” he says, “the groups should be able to change personnel as needed, and bring in new kinds of expertise.”

The initiative is being funded through NSF’s division of chemistry. Each award provides $1.5 million to the CBC over a three-year period. At the end of that time, those centers showing high potential will be eligible to continue their work with a Phase II award, which will provide $ 2 million to $3 million per year for up to five years. These awards are also potentially renewable for an additional five years.


The Three New Chemical Bonding Centers

Darwinian Chemical Systems. Professor Jack W. Szostak, of Massachusetts General Hospital, Steven A. Benner, of the University of Florida, and Gerald F. Joyce, of the Scripps Research Institute will pursue the long-term goal of synthesizing artificial chemical systems that exhibit Darwinian evolution. In phase I of the project, the researchers will use a combination of molecular design and laboratory selection to generate RNA-like structures that undergo self-replication. Along the way, they will try to gain a better understanding of the principles that drive self-replication in molecular systems—an understanding that may provide important clues about the origin of life. Furthermore, since these self-replicating systems will also have the capacity to mutate, the experimenters should be able to optimize various functions through a further artificial selection process. This opens up the possibility of many practical applications for Darwinian chemical systems. Indeed, such a program at the interface of chemistry and biology should provide broad interdisciplinary training for students, and is likely to capture the imagination of the public.

The Rational Design of Multifunctional Materials. This is the goal of the CBC led by Professor Nicola A. Spaldin of the University of California at Santa Barbara, who will be working with chemists and materials scientists from UCSB, the University of Houston, Ohio State University, and Carnegie Mellon University. Rational design is a dream for materials researchers, in the sense of starting from a set of specifications—“I want a material with properties A, B, and C”—and then systematically working out what the material should be, and how to make it. Spaldin and her colleagues hope to realize that dream—especially when it comes to “multifunctional” materials such as, say, magnets that respond in novel ways when exposed to light. In phase I of the project, the CBC team will first try to gain a better understanding of chemical bonding in solids, and then use that knowledge to create new materials with interesting electrical and magnetic properties. Finally, they will attempt to combine these new materials into rationally designed “smart” materials—that is, substances that can change and respond in useful ways to environmental stimulation. In addition, this CBC will conduct an extensive outreach program designed to enhance the public's appreciation of chemistry as a major driving force in modern innovation.

Environmentally Friendly Chemistry. In this CBC, Professor Karen I. Goldberg of the University of Washington will lead a multi-institution collaboration of twelve principal investigators having expertise in chemical synthesis, catalysis, computational chemistry, and spectroscopy. Their focus will be on strong chemical bonds, which tend to be the hardest bonds to break. Their hope is that by finding new ways to target and transform very specific strong bonds, they will open up new and environmentally friendly ways to synthesize materials on a large scale. In particular, they hope to make it easier to use of chemical feedstocks ranging in complexity from natural gas to complex biological molecules. And that, in turn, could have a major impact on large-scale industrial chemistry, pharmaceutical synthesis, and chemical recycling. Along the way, moreover, this CBC will offer many training opportunities for students, and will attempt to increase public awareness of the role of chemistry as a driver in solutions of societal problems.

Media Contacts
M. Mitchell Waldrop, NSF, (703) 292-7752, email:
Vince Stricherz, University of Washington, (206) 543-2580, email:
Gail Gallessich, University of California, Santa Barbara, (805) 893-7220, email:

Program Contacts
Linda Magid, NSF, (703) 292-4930, email:
Philip B. Shevlin, NSF, (703) 292-4968, email:

Principal Investigators
Karen I. Goldberg, University of Washington, (206) 616-2973, email:
Jack W. Szostak, Massachusetts General Hospital, (617) 726-5978, email:
Nicola A. Spaldin, University of California, Santa Barbara, (805) 893-7920, email:

The U.S. National Science Foundation propels the nation forward by advancing fundamental research in all fields of science and engineering. NSF supports research and people by providing facilities, instruments and funding to support their ingenuity and sustain the U.S. as a global leader in research and innovation. With a fiscal year 2021 budget of $8.5 billion, NSF funds reach all 50 states through grants to nearly 2,000 colleges, universities and institutions. Each year, NSF receives more than 40,000 competitive proposals and makes about 11,000 new awards. Those awards include support for cooperative research with industry, Arctic and Antarctic research and operations, and U.S. participation in international scientific efforts.

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