Current Affiliation: Max Planck Institute for Kohlenforschung
Ph.D. alma mater: ETH Zurich
Role model: 1963 Nobel Prize winner Karl Ziegler. He focused on fundamental research without thinking about applications, Morandi says. But, when his scientific curiosity led him to discover a method to generate polyethylene under low pressure, he recognized the immense potential.
Advice for young scientists: “Focus on something you enjoy doing, surround yourself with smart (and critical) friends, don’t take yourself too seriously, and treat all your colleagues with respect.”
Codename: Molecule Machinist
As a synthetic organic chemist, Bill Morandi is in the business of making molecules. But Morandi admits he’s not interested in the long, slow game of constructing complex natural products or pharmaceuticals. He prefers a faster pace. This, after all, is a man who used to play table tennis competitively.
To achieve speedy results in the lab, Morandi invents new chemical reactions. In particular, Morandi and his research group at the Max Planck Institute for Kohlenforschung want to give chemists new ways to add or remove valuable functional groups from molecules. Such reactions, he explains, can transform compounds that might otherwise be wasted into valuable feedstocks. For example, he has found ways to add complexity to simple compounds derived from petroleum and strip down complicated ones derived from biomass.
“Functional groups really determine what a molecule will do and what kind of properties it will have,” Morandi explains. Being able to selectively add these groups or take them away lets chemists make valuable molecules from more mundane ones.
With this aim in mind, Morandi’s team developed a reaction that selectively plucks off one alcohol group from a molecule that bears two adjacent alcohol groups. They also figured out a way to add hydrogen cyanide across a double bond without actually using the dangerous chemical, providing a safer alternative for this workhorse reaction. And Morandi doesn’t just focus on safer reactions; he also emphasizes sustainability: All his lab’s transformations developed to date use inexpensive earth-abundant catalysts.
Morandi’s novel catalytic reactions transform widely available chemicals into more precious compounds, notes Benjamin List, a colleague of Morandi’s at Max Planck. List says: “It may well be this kind of research in catalysis that will ultimately provide answers to the challenges of our time, such as energy, health, and transportation.”
Research at a glance
Three key papers:
“Catalytic Reversible Alkene-Nitrile Interconversion through Controllable Transfer Hydrocyanation” (Science 2016, DOI: 10.1126/science.aae0427)
“Boron-Catalyzed Regioselective Deoxygenation of Terminal 1,2-Diols to 2-Alkanols Enabled by the Strategic Formation of a Cyclic Siloxane Intermediate” (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2015, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201503172)
“Direct Catalytic Synthesis of Unprotected 2-Amino-1-Phenylethanols from Alkenes by Using Iron(II) Phthalocyanine” (Angew. Chem. Int. Ed. 2016, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201507630)
They might be young scientists, but our Talented 12 have already traveled far and wide.
Story in C&EN about Morandi’s research:
Watch Morandi talk about his research during a special Aug. 22 Talented 12 symposium held at the American Chemical Society national meeting in Philadelphia.
CORRECTION: On Aug. 25, 2016, this profile was updated to correct the city in which Bill Morandi is currently located. It’s Mülheim, not Munich.