All of our research centers around the synthesis and characterization of new inorganic molecules. Our choice of synthetic target is directed by a desire to investigate the activation of small molecules or interesting electronic states.

Low energy processes for the conversion of small molecules into fuels are of significant importance to modern society. CO2 is an abundant resource which should be harnessed for use as a C1 feedstock for fuels or commodity chemicals. Our efforts will ultimately lead to low energy processes for the conversion of CO2 into fuels. Insights we gain into the atomic-resolution understanding of the fundamental molecular reaction chemistry of CO2 will also inform other fields, such as heterogeneous catalysis. Some long term goals of our work include the following:

  • to understand the fundamental molecular processes required to transform small molecules such as CO2 .
  • to enable electrocatalytic conversion of CO2 into fuels such as formic acid or methanol.
  • to employ CO2 as a C1 synthon for higher value organic products.

  • Multielectron chemistry with multimetallic clusters

    Electrochemical methods for the production of fuels can be linked to a photovoltaic device that can supply the required electricity as a product of solar radiation. In this way, a fuel provides an energy dense, transportable means to store solar energy. We are investigating multimetallic ensembles of earth-abundant iron and cobalt atoms in order to achieve the low energy electrochemical processes that are in theory available by multi-electron processes. Atom-level understanding of the reaction of acids with metal clusters under electrochemical conditions is being probed to control competing reactions such as hydrogen evolution and CO2 reduction to formic acid. Metal-hydride catalyst intermediates can react with H+ or with CO2 and we wish to understand how to selectively direct competing reactions and favor CO2 reduction. The effect of cluster size (2 - 13 metal atoms) on catalysis is another area that we are investigating.

    Redox Chemistry and Transformations with Aluminum(III)

    In principle, cheap and abundant elements such as aluminum (8% in the earth's crust) are appealing for large scale applications such as catalysis. However, the reliance on redox processes in much of catalysis means that aluminum is often not suitable. By addition of redox active ligands to aluminum, the Berben lab can now access aluminum complexes in five oxidation states including one oxidation state that has two unpaired electrons. Using these complexes we can perform classic transition metal reactions such as one- or two-electron oxidation chemistry, and C-H activation. Ongoing work includes activation and functionalization of CO2 as a C1 building block. Some of these findings were recently published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Check out our Publications page for more details.

    Synthesis of Low-Coordinate Complexes using Bulky Acetylide Ligands

    Acetylide is a strongly donating ligand and it is well-known that strongly donating and tunable ligands such as phosphines and N-heterocyclic carbenes feature prominently in transition metal synthesis and catalysis. However, unlike phosphine and N-heterocyclic carbene ligands, facile routes to substituted acetylide ligands are not readily available. It has been established that the more strongly donating N-heterocyclic carbene ligand offers enhanced stability, and hence improved catalytic activity over analogous phosphine complexes in some instances. We are exploring whether the more donating and anionic acetylide ligand can also serve as a tunable and highly donating ancillary ligand. See our publications page for more details.