Bergman Wins Lawrence Award

December 3, 1993

By Lynn Yarris, [email protected]

Robert Bergman, a chemist in LBL's Chemical Sciences Divison and professor of chemistry with UC Berkeley, is one of the seven scientists named as winners of the 1993 E.O. Lawrence Award by Secretary of Energy Hazel O'Leary. Bergman becomes the 22nd LBL recipient of the award, which includes a citation, a gold medal, and $10,000.

The Lawrence Award was established in December 1959 to honor the memory of LBL-founder Ernest Orlando Lawrence. In the past it has been awarded by DOE to outstanding U.S. scientists and engineers who are "relatively early in their careers." This year, age was not a selection factor. Bergman is 51.

Bergman won his award in the category of Chemistry for pioneering research in the field of organometallic chemistry and for his discovery of a class of metal complexes with important commercial applications for the oil and coal industry.

The thrust of Bergman's research has been the activation of alkanes. Alkanes are compounds of carbon and hydrogen atoms held together by single bonds. The simplest and most abundant is methane (CH4), the primary constituent of natural gas. Chemists have long coveted the use of alkanes as feedstock for clean- burning fuels and a host of petrochemicals, including plastics, solvents, synthetic fibers, and pharmaceutical drugs. The problem has been that the bonds between an alkane's carbon and hydrogen atoms are so strong as to render alkanes generally unreactive.

In 1981, Bergman led the discovery of an unusual new group of organometallic complexes -- compounds of metal atoms, such as iridium or rhodium, sandwiched between organic molecules. These compounds could break carbon-hydrogen bonds in alkanes and insert a metal atom to form a carbon-metal-hydrogen compound. The carbon-metal and metal-hydrogen bonds in this new compound are much more reactive than the carbon-hydrogen bonds in the alkane, which means the alkane can potentially be much more readily converted into a useful product. Bergman's discovery created an entire new subfield of chemistry virtually overnight. Since then, he has been working to better understand the reaction with the ultimate aim of designing a process that is truly catalytic.

Chicago-born Bergman received his B.S. from Carleton College and his Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Wisconsin. After teaching for 10 years at Cal Tech, he came to Berkeley in 1977. A member of the National Academy of Sciences, Bergman is the author or co-author of more than 200 publications. Among many other honors, he was the winner of the 1987 Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award presented by the American Chemical Society for excellence in organic chemistry research.

Other winners of this year's Lawrence Award were James G. Anderson, a Harvard University chemist; physicist Alan Bishop, biologist Robert Moyzis, and physicist John Shaner, all with the Los Alamos National Laboratory; Yoon Chang, a nuclear engineer with Argonne National Laboratory; and Carl Wieman, a physicist at the University of Colorado.

In announcing the winners, Secretary O'Leary said, "These innovative minds represent the rich base of scientific knowledge that will help the U.S. maintain economic security into the 21st century."

The 1993 Lawrence Awards will be presented at a special ceremony in Washington D.C. on a date to be announced.