The Kanan Lab addresses fundamental challenges in catalysis and synthesis with an emphasis on enabling new technologies for scalable CO2 utilization. The interdisciplinary effort spans organic synthesis, materials chemistry and electrochemistry.

One of the greatest challenges of the 21st century is to transition to an energy economy with ultra-low greenhouse gas emissions without compromising quality of life for a growing population. The Kanan Lab aims to help enable this transition by developing catalysts and chemical reactions that recycle CO2 into fuels and commodity chemicals using renewable energy sources. To be implemented on a substantial scale, these methods must ultimately be competitive with fossil fuels and petrochemicals. With this requirement in mind, the group focuses on the fundamental chemical challenge of making carbon–carbon (C–C) bonds because multi-carbon compounds have higher energy density, greater value, and more diverse applications that one-carbon compounds. Both electrochemical and chemical methods are being pursued. For electrochemical conversion, the group studies how defects known as grain boundaries can be exploited to improve CO2/CO electro-reduction catalysis. Recent work has unveiled quantitative correlations between grain boundaries and catalytic activity, establishing a new design principle for electrocatalysis, and developed grain boundary-rich copper catalysts with unparalleled activity for converting carbon monoxide to liquid fuel. For chemical CO2 conversion, the group is developing C–H carboxylation and CO2 hydrogenation reactions that are promoted by simple carbonate salts. These reactions provide a way to make C–C bonds between un-activated substrates and CO2 without resorting to energy-intensive and hazardous reagents. Among numerous applications, carbonate-promoted carboxylation enables the synthesis of a monomer used to make polyester plastic from CO2 and a feedstock derived from agricultural waste.

In addition to CO2 chemistry, the Kanan group is pursuing new strategies to control selectivity in molecular catalysis for fine chemical synthesis. Of particular interest in the use of electrostatic interactions to discriminate between competing reaction pathways based on their charge distributions. This effort uses ion pairing or interfaces to control the local electrostatic environment in which a reaction takes place. The group has recently shown that local electric fields can control regioselectivity in isomerization reactions catalyzed by gold complexes.