The Renewable Energy Reaper
Jack of all trades is catalytically converting CO2 into fuels and chemical building blocks
Most chemists would be satisfied with making a major contribution to one field of research. Matthew W. Kanan has already made discoveries in three fields and counting: As a graduate student, he helped pioneer DNA-templated organic synthesis, a molecule-building technique that uses DNA strands to bring reactants together. As a postdoc, he discovered a game-changing catalyst for splitting water and generating hydrogen fuel. And now as a team leader, he’s finding ways of turning the greenhouse gas CO2 into useful materials
“Lightning doesn’t strike in the same place three times by accident,” says Martin D. Burke, an organic chemist at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). Burke says that he tried to recruit Kanan to UIUC but that he lost out when Kanan ultimately chose to start his own lab at Stanford University.
To Kanan, tackling new fields of research isn’t daunting—it’s just part of who he is. “I have this hybrid background,” Kanan says. “Some people bend their expertise to fit a problem. I like to think of myself the other way.” Kanan says he goes after grand challenges whether he has the background or not.
Kanan’s now trying to solve the problem of Earth’s dwindling fossil fuels by gaining expertise in CO2 recycling. “Our overall goal is to make it possible and viable to recycle carbon dioxide into commodity chemicals and fuels,” he says. To achieve that objective, Kanan and his team are studying crystalline grain boundaries in solid catalysts, such as copper and gold, to optimize their ability to convert CO2 into ethanol. -Jessica Morrison