As someone who continues to be inspired by advances in chemistry and still loves to play soccer at age 72, National Academy Member Maurice Brookhart was not about to rest on his laurels when he retired in 2014. He had research ideas he wanted to pursue.
That’s when his former postdoctoral associate and longtime collaborator Olafs Daugulis, the Robert A. Welch Chair in Chemistry at the University of Houston, suggested that it might be possible for his mentor to join him as a colleague. The prospect of this sounded promising and, a year later, Brookhart became a part-time UH faculty member in fall 2015, continuing his research as a professor of chemistry.
“This is an ideal situation for me,” Brookhart said. “Professor Daugulis and I work well together, and I expect we can produce some significant research in catalysis. My work in recent years has been highly collaborative, and I look forward to working with my new colleagues, especially the junior faculty in chemistry.”
Noted for his research on organometallic complexes, his work involves fundamental research on the synthetic and mechanistic chemistry of compounds containing metal-carbon bonds. This research focuses on developing new organometallic catalysts for linking together molecules in a process known as olefin polymerization, as well as on developing catalysts to break and functionalize inert carbon-hydrogen and carbon-carbon bonds. The work could lead to more efficient production of some types of plastics.
“These complexes are of interest for a wide variety of reasons, but our particular interest concerns using them as catalysts for converting organic molecules more efficiently to useful materials, such as plastics or precursors to pharmaceuticals,” he said. “My work at UH will center on creating new late-transition metal catalysts for olefin polymerization. Not only is it relatively easy to modify the properties of the polymers being produced, but also late-transition metal catalysts allow for production of specialty polymers at lower temperatures and pressures than traditional methods. This could potentially result in cost savings on an industrial scale, as well as the development of more environmentally friendly products.”
Polyethylene, a common, commercially produced plastic, is an example of a simple polymer that his catalysts are designed to produce. Several polymer manufacturers are investigating possible applications of his catalysts.
Dialing back to his childhood, Brookhart grew up in a small town in the mountains of western Maryland. His initial interest in science and chemistry was sparked by a combination of his mother, who was a high school science teacher, and his high school chemistry teacher. He says his father also was very much of an influence and supportive. Coming to western Maryland in the 1930s as part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civil Conservation Corps, his father, who was not college-educated himself, was very eager to see his son go to college and excel.
After getting his undergraduate degree in chemistry at Johns Hopkins University, Brookhart went on to earn his Ph.D. in physical organic chemistry from the University of California at Los Angeles. From UCLA, he moved on to England for a year of postdoctoral study, where he began his initial research in organometallic chemistry. He returned to the U.S. to take on a faculty position at the University of North Carolina (UNC) at Chapel Hill in 1969.
Fast forward to current day, Brookhart’s home continues to be in North Carolina, where he enjoyed his 45-year career as a professor before retiring from UNC. His wife, Mary Hughes, who also is now retired, earned her Ph.D. in English at UNC and taught at two historically black institutions, North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University and North Carolina Central University. Brookhart is happy to have his son, Alan, who is on the faculty in the School of Public Health at UNC, living nearby with his wife and two children. Brookhart’s daughter, Susan, who teaches chemistry at a private high school in Cairo, lives in Egypt with her husband and their two boys.
Among his many accolades, Brookhart has received four national American Chemistry Society (ACS) awards — the ACS Award in Organometallic Chemistry, the Arthur C. Cope Award, the ACS Award in Polymer Chemistry and the ACS Gabor A. Somorjai Award for Creative Research in Catalysis. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2001.
“Professor Brookhart’s phenomenal research accomplishments speak for themselves,” said David Hoffman, chair of the UH Department of Chemistry. “As we grow our department, having someone of his stature on our faculty will help us tremendously in attracting the best faculty candidates from around the world.”