Associate Professor David Powers has long been fascinated by reaction mechanisms– how to move from A to B in a chemical reaction. His research program combines synthetic organic and inorganic chemistry to develop, understand and apply novel chemical transformations for sustainable synthesis. By developing new tools to control reactions, his group is streamlining the synthesis of functional molecules while reducing the associated waste streams.
The Powers group has two major research foci: Characterizing the reactive species that are responsible for bond-forming and -breaking in catalysis as well as developing new methods to generate and apply those reactive species in synthetically important contexts.
Because reactive intermediates have fleeting lifetimes, it can be difficult to study them. Often, efforts to stabilize these reactive intermediates to enable characterization – by X-ray crystallography, for example – can affect the very properties a researcher is hoping to analyze. Dr. Powers’ team is working to create a new approach using photochemistry inside a crystal to generate transient intermediates under conditions in which they can be observed and characterized. These studies provide insights into how to design new catalysts to control the structure and reactivity of the reactive intermediates at the heart of synthetic reactions.
To utilize reactive intermediates in new, efficient synthetic methods, Dr. Powers has been developing sustainable metal-free synthetic methods. Using strong oxidants generated by oxygen from the air or electricity that can be sourced from solar power, these methods promise to increase the sustainability of fine-chemical synthesis. He leverages his expertise in catalysis, synthesis and reaction mechanisms to explore the fundamental chemistry involved in electrochemical oxidation of main-group compounds. Dr. Powers hopes developing a deep understanding of the mechanisms will help pinpoint strategies to enable broadly applicable electrocatalytic and aerobic processes.
“Welch is one of the only mechanisms where preliminary data isn’t necessary to secure funding,” Dr. Powers said, “and that is incredibly helpful. Welch supports a lot of work in my lab as we work to develop new and more sustainable tools to make chemicals.”
Dr. Powers joined Texas A&M in 2015 after graduate school at Harvard University and a postdoctoral fellowship at Harvard and Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Welch funding helped him get his lab up and running. Today he leads a group of 20-plus researchers, including undergraduates, graduate students and postdocs. He has been recognized with both research and teaching awards.
“Texas A&M has an awesome legacy in synthetic and inorganic chemistry, with great resources and great people,” he said. “Thanks to Welch, Texas is a very friendly place for fundamental science.”