Professor Shannon Stahl: The pathway to PGCCA

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The 2014 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards (PGCCA) have come and gone, celebrating the innovative research and accomplishments made by chemists in industry and academia. Among these chemists, Dr. Shannon Stahl, winner in the Academic category, has paved a dynamic path to where he is today. Stahl is currently a professor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the Department of Chemistry. He earned his B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the California Institute of Technology and was a NSF Postdoctoral Fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 2011, Stahl’s research on aerobic oxidation chemistry received a $150,000 grant from ACS GCI Pharmaceutical Roundtable. The roundtable brings companies together to encourage innovation in green chemistry and engineering in the pharmaceutical industry. The grants the Roundtable awards are designed to help advance key green chemistry research areas of importance to the industry. “What the Pharmaceutical Roundtable funding allowed us to do was to kick-start an effort in copper catalysis. We had previously focused on palladium chemistry, but the GCI funding allowed a look at complementary approaches to aerobic oxidation using copper, specifically for alcohol oxidation reactions,” says Stahl.

The Pharmaceutical Roundtable was the first of several sources of support Stahl obtained for this research, with subsequent funding coming from the Department of Energy, the Dreyfus Foundation, as well as a pre-competitive consortium with three pharmaceutical companies--Eli Lilly, Pfizer, and Merck. These groups contributed to an aerobic oxidation consortium, which provided a substantial jump in funding to actually go after this project to expand and also achieve a greater level of focus. “I think it was really the Pharmaceutical Roundtable seed money was really important because it got the ball rolling.”

The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Awards are given every year by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to those who exemplify the promotion of environmental and economic efforts in green chemistry. Stahl’s award for his academic research this year was for developing catalytic methods that replace toxic chemical oxidants with oxygen from the air. “This work provided a greener approach to something that could be done by other methods. I think an even bigger challenge is to come up with aerobic methods to carry out reactions that simply are not possible by any other method that essentially, is not just making a green reaction, but you’re also really changing the way people make molecules.”

Aerobic alcohol oxidations are one of the most common type of oxidation reactions in organic chemistry, according to Stahl. While there are non-aerobic methods to do alcohol oxidation, part of the reason Stahl pursued this application is because pharmaceutical companies are likely to encounter these reactions multiple times in a given year. Stahl notes that this increases the chance that pharma would consider performing an aerobic oxidation.

Stahl mentioned that what drives him as a chemist is his interest in understanding nature and learning how to manipulate and utilize it to discover new principles of reactivity. “When you’re successful at the fundamental science level, especially in an area like catalysis and chemical synthesis, very often it will be intrinsically green. If it’s not green, there's a good chance that people are not going to use it.”

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