BU professor contributes to Nobel Prize-winning research

For Immediate Release

BLOOMSBURG – A Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania professor has first-hand knowledge of the research that won the 2005 Nobel Prize in chemistry for Robert H. Grubbs of the California Institute of Technology. John P. Morgan, a first-year professor at Bloomsburg University, contributed six papers and five patents to Grubbs’ work, which was recognized for its impact on environmentally safe chemistry and its potential uses in the medical field.

Grubbs’ research focused on creating compounds that make reactions faster and more effective. His research team learned N-heterocyclic carbene catalysts accelerated reactions by more than one hundred times. “Not only did they speed up reactions considerably, but they allowed us to make compounds that we couldn’t make before,” Morgan said. This technology allows for the creation of natural polymers, such as plastics or rubbery materials, and pharmaceuticals. 

Morgan worked on Grubbs’ research for more than five years as a graduate student at the California Institute of Technology. “Grubbs had been working on the research project for 30 years; I came in at about the 22nd year of research,” said Morgan, assistant professor of chemistry at BU. “When I got involved, the team’s knowledge was right on the cusp of breakthrough.”

While working with Grubbs, Morgan developed a method for making the catalysts, a method Grubbs still uses at his company, Materia. 

An important component of Grubbs’ research is its contribution to green chemistry. According to Morgan, the polymers that Grubbs’ team created could be made degradable. “Right now we’re buried by the plastics we produce because it is difficult to break them down. But these types of polymers are unsaturated, meaning we can break them down as well as build them up,” Morgan said.

The catalysts can also be used to produce pharmaceuticals without negative ecological effects. Currently, many drugs come from biological sources. “This technology allows us to use catalysts to make drugs without killing biomass,” Morgan said.

Morgan credits Grubbs with teaching him the importance of applied chemistry. “When Bob came into this business, he was surrounded by inorganic chemists who cared about the theory of chemistry. He became known in the field for applying those theories and was able to see and utilize the practicality of chemistry. During our research, I could really see what it meant to take an idea and make it practical, to put it to use,” Morgan said.
Currently, Morgan is interested in using N-heterocyclic carbenes for ecological and medical purposes.  Because they are strong metal binders, carbenes can be used to clean up metal from waste streams. He is also interested in their use in biological organisms. Metals that are used to combat diseases, particularly cancer, can have a negative immune response. Morgan hopes carbenes can be used to disguise the metals so the body’s immune system doesn’t combat them.

Grubbs also encouraged Morgan’s desire to pursue his career at a small university. “Bob never argued with my decision to go to a small school. I told him where I was interested in working, and he said, ‘OK, let’s check it out,’” Morgan said.  “At schools like Bloomsburg, it’s great to have teaching as a focus and to know your students.”

Bloomsburg University is one of 14 universities in the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. The university serves approximately 8,000 students and offers 65 bachelor’s, 18 master’s and one doctoral degree.