New Research Center Will Free Chemistry from Earth's Bonds

October 8, 2008 -- A new, multi-institutional research center combining the tools of chemistry and astronomy, to be headquartered at the University of Virginia, will use the unique laboratory of interstellar space to free the study of basic chemistry from the restrictive bonds of Earth.

The Center for Chemistry of the Universe, led by Brooks Pate, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Chemistry at U.Va., will allow scientists to explore new types of chemical reactions that occur under the extreme conditions of space. The center will combine laboratory experiments, theoretical studies and radio-telescope observations to dramatically expand our understanding of the processes that build molecules that may "seed" young planets with the building blocks of life.

"We hope to answer some very basic questions, such as just how did the molecules that ultimately became us get their start?" Pate said.

Pate's primary U.Va. colleagues in the center include John Yates, professor of chemistry and Edgar G. Shannon Fellow; Kevin Lehmann, professor of chemistry and physics, and Tom Gallagher, the Jesse W. Beams Professor of Physics.

The multi-institutional team recently received an initial grant of $1.5 million from the National Science Foundation to form the center during the next two years. If NSF then fully approves the initiative, the organization will provide funding of $4 million per year for up to 10 years.

The center forges a unique research collaboration between leading scientists in the field of astrochemistry from U.Va., the University of Arizona, Ohio State University, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, the National Institute of Standards and Technology and the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, which is headquartered in Charlottesville. 

"The center is the result of close relationships between researchers at U.Va. and NRAO, and with members of the other groups," Pate said. "We were able to expand that into a winning multi-dimensional proposal to NSF." 

Laboratory researchers, theoreticians and observers will be using NRAO radio telescopes and the Arizona Radio Observatory. The group of chemists participating in the center have discovered more than half of the new interstellar molecules identified worldwide in the past 18 months.

“The exploration of new kinds of chemistry in remote regions of the Universe could significantly extend our understanding of chemistry under extreme conditions on Earth as well a providing insight into the origin of life on Earth and possibly elsewhere," Yates said.

"A central theme of chemistry is to understand how chemical reactions work," added Philip Jewell, deputy director of the NRAO and one of the team members. "Most of our current knowledge of how molecules are formed came from laboratory experiments with solutions.

"However, in interstellar space, reactions occur in gases and on surfaces, such as on tiny cosmic dust grains. We're going to focus on studying these poorly understood processes, and thus break chemistry out of our Earth-bound constraints."
 
The new center also will pursue an extensive educational effort, including student programs, new courses at U.Va. and displays and outreach activities at the NRAO's Green Bank Science Center in West Virginia and at other museums.

"The University applauds the leadership of Brooks Pate, John Yates, Tom Gallagher and Kevin Lehmann in developing an entirely new laboratory environment for novel research," said Tom Skalak, U.Va. vice president for research. "Their center is a splendid example of provocative, new science from collaboration" on a multi-institutional level.

— By Fariss Samarrai