Sept. 28, 2009

With stimulus funds, Roald Hoffmann continues exploring novel chemical properties

Roald Hoffmann still gets as excited about chemistry as he did 40 years ago, when the National Science Foundation first started supporting his research.

The 1981 chemistry Nobel laureate and Frank H.T. Rhodes Professor of Humane Letters Emeritus has enjoyed near-uninterrupted NSF support over the past four decades. This year, he received an added vote of confidence: An extra year tagged onto his regular three-year grant, thanks to federal stimulus funds.

Hoffmann's four-year, $616,000 grant that includes the extra year will go toward Hoffmann's regular research endeavors, while also allowing him to retain two postdoctoral associates in his lab. He enjoys the scientific freedom to study "any interesting molecule under the sun, organic or inorganic."

"I feel my contributions are best undirected in some way, dreaming up new molecules and properties," Hoffmann said.

For example, last year Hoffmann and Cornell graduate student Anne Poduska published a paper on a strange new molecule consisting of a phosphorus atom connected to three metal atoms in the shape of a "T." The team used computer modeling to understand the "weird" structure of that molecule.

"We try to look at similarities and differences with the rest of the chemical universe," Hoffmann said. "And then we try to also see what conditions might be necessary to generate the structure again in another system." He also recently designed a set of unusual compounds consisting of strontium, titanium and oxygen.

Hoffmann also collaborates with Cornell physicist Neil Ashcroft exploring the properties of matter at extreme pressures.

To date, Cornell has received 106 grants from the stimulus package, the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, totally almost $92.5 million.