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Chemistry at Caltech

Researchers at Caltech have synthesized the first iron-based catalyst for the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to ammonia. Credit: iStockphoto

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Caltech offers exciting opportunities for study and research at the frontiers of chemical science. With approximately 45 faculty, the chemistry program provides depth in the traditional areas of chemistry—organic and inorganic chemistry, chemical physics, theoretical chemistry, and chemical biology. Research areas include chemical synthesis and catalysis, chemical dynamics and reaction mechanisms, biochemistry, bioinorganic, bioorganic, and biophysical chemistry, and materials chemistry.

Chemical research at Caltech is also highly interdisciplinary, mirroring the increasing importance of molecular understanding in many fields of science. Active interactions exist between chemistry and other disciplines at Caltech, especially applied physics, biology, chemical engineering, environmental science, geological and planetary sciences, and materials science. Major initiatives are fostering broad collaborations in energy and environment, molecular medicine, and nanomaterials.

Caltech has trained generations of chemists who have become leaders in academia, industry, and government, through undergraduate and graduate programs that are designed to encourage the greatest possible amount of freedom, creativity, and flexibility.

Areas of Research

Caltech has a long and continuing reputation for excellence in fundamental chemistry in molecular structure and the nature of chemical bonding. Much of the current research in chemistry is directed at establishing and manipulating the mechanisms of reactions of fundamental chemical and biological significance.

Programs in chemical physics emphasize studies of molecular dynamics and structure using techniques that include femtosecond lasers, molecular beams, ultra-high sensitivity spectroscopy, 
and mass spectrometry, while novel methods such as ultrafast electron diffraction and force-detected magnetic resonance are being developed and applied to systems of increasing complexity. Interdisciplinary research includes the development of powerful approaches to fabricate, assemble, and utilize nanometer-scale structures; spectroscopy and fundamental chemical mechanisms
of reactions in Earth and planetary atmospheres, star formation, and interstellar chemistry; the dynamics of phase transitions; and novel methods in mass spectrometry.

Catalysis by transition metals represents a central area of research in the inorganic and organometallic areas. Current research interests include the uses of transition metal complexes as homogeneous and heterogeneous catalysts for polymer synthesis, solar energy conversion and storage, and methane and water oxidation. Reactions of molecules on surfaces are an important focus, especially on semiconductors. Research in bioorganic and bioinorganic chemistry includes the chemical basis of synaptic transmission by ion channels; investigations of molecular recognition and sequence-specific ligand binding to DNA; DNA-mediated charge transport; and design of artificial transcription activators.

Chemical synthesis, a key part of much of the research described above, is the primary research goal of several groups, and includes projects aimed at the synthesis of complex organic molecules of importance in biology and human medicine. These efforts include development of new and synthetically useful chemical transformations mediated by novel organic and transition metal-based catalysts. The division has an exceptional program in polymer science, with emphasis on the development of strategies and methodologies for the synthesis of designed polymers using chemical- and biological-based approaches.

The theoretical chemistry program ranges from fundamental studies of electron transfer to excited states and reaction dynamics of small molecules, to simulations of biological systems and materials. In these studies, theoretical techniques are being developed to provide detailed understanding of electron transfer processes, proton transfer reactions, energy randomization processes within molecules, and the dynamics of reacting systems. Computer simulations are addressing ever more complex systems, ranging from metals and superconductors to soft materials and biomolecules.

Research in biochemistry and molecular biology within the chemistry division exists within the larger framework of biochemical studies at Caltech, and includes crystallographic and spectroscopic analyses of macromolecule structures; studies on the design, folding, and stability of macromolecules; the mechanisms of
enzyme catalysis and allosteric transitions; interactions between proteins and nucleic acids; macromolecular assemblies mediating replication, transcription, and protein biosynthesis; the mechanism and functional role of protein glycosylation; and mechanisms of ion and electron transport in biological membranes.