• Robert Grubbs
    Credit: Courtesy of the Caltech Archives

Robert H. Grubbs Wins National Award from American Chemical Society

The Caltech chemist's work has been instrumental in developing efficient catalysts for organic compounds.

Robert H. Grubbs, the Victor and Elizabeth Atkins Professor of Chemistry at Caltech, has been named the recipient of the American Chemical Society's George A. Olah Award in Hydrocarbon or Petroleum Chemistry for 2017. This award recognizes Grubbs' pioneering work in creating simpler, more efficient methods for manufacturing compounds used in industries including agriculture, pharmaceuticals, and petroleum extraction. Grubbs, a co-winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry who joined the Caltech faculty in 1978, was honored "for his fundamental work and revolutionary contributions for converting hydrocarbons to new molecules, polymers, and materials," according to an article in the society's Chemical & Engineering News magazine.

"It's a recognition that we made contributions that people care about," says Grubbs, adding that the award is the result of the hard work of everyone on his team of students and postdoctoral fellows.

Receiving the award took on special meaning, Grubbs says, because its namesake, George Olah—a Nobel Prize-winning chemist at the University of Southern California—died only weeks before the award ceremony. Grubbs says he had been hoping to see Olah at the event.

"I knew George for many years. He was one of my heroes when I was a young chemist," Grubbs says.

Grubbs' research has focused on developing catalysts for olefin metathesis, a type of chemical reaction that breaks double bonds between carbon atoms and reforms them in a different configuration. The catalysts developed by Grubbs are distinguished by their ability to target specific bonds within a molecule while leaving others unaffected. The selective nature of the catalysts results in very efficient chemical reactions and fewer unwanted by-products.

One of Grubbs' catalysts was used to produce a compound that was part of the first successful treatment for hepatitis C; another is being used in the production of a polymer that insulates oil pipelines. A company cofounded by Grubbs to commercialize his catalyst technology has partnered with agricultural giant Cargill to produce biofuels and chemicals from vegetable oils.

Written by Emily Velasco