Bringing New Substances into Existence

Uncovering the fundamental principles of chemical structure, bonding, and reactivity

Dr. Christopher Cummins, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, uses explanatory synthesis to bring new molecular substances into existence. His curiosity-driven research has the potential to provide astrophysicists with information needed to map the molecular composition of interstellar clouds that are the nurseries of new stars and planets. Additionally, by discovering new types of chemical bonds and transformations, Dr. Cummins and his team provide the fundamental underpinnings for making sense of what is possible on a chemical level. Their basic research allows for the development of novel ways to chemically “fix” the nitrogen molecule in order to use atmospheric nitrogen as a chemical feedstock. Therefore, through the expansion of what is known to be possible in chemistry, Dr. Cummins is able to target, synthesize, and study novel substances that are likely to have a great impact on our world.

Dr. Cummins takes an element-centric approach to uncovering these fundamental principles. His research hopes to uncover definitive examples of new chemistry involving simple molecules based upon nitrogen, phosphorous, and oxygen. He and his team use inorganic synthesis to bring into existence new molecules and substances in addition to mapping out their chemical properties. His unique approach that connects disparate themes involving molecules of the atmosphere and molecules from interstellar space to synthetic chemistry on Earth helps to address some of astronomy and chemistry’s most basic questions about our universe. In addition, despite the fundamental nature of his work, through organic chemistry or transition-metal chemistry Dr. Cummins is able to make his research relevant to biological and industrial processes. In short, his incredible research has allowed Dr. Cummins and his team to create new knowledge and bring new substances into existence by harnessing the chemistry of molecules that may only naturally exist in space!

Current research includes:

  • New Patterns for Reactivity: Dr. Cummins is interested in identifying new patterns of reactivity for important very stable small molecules. Some of these molecules include, N2, which makes up 78% of the Earth’s atmosphere and CO2, the carbonaceous greenhouse gas produced from fossil fuel combustion. This area of research may help explain known catalytic transformations or provide a basis for the national design of new ones.

  • Interstellar Molecules: P2 is thought to be the main phosphorus reservoir in the atmospheres of hot planets but yet, is it not available here on Earth. To understand its reactivity properties, Dr. Cummins designed a molecule capable of releasing P2 in response to a stimulus, such as mild heating. This has led to novel discoveries including the P2 transfer reactions for phosphorus incorporation into organic molecules and the development of a novel species composed entirely of nitrogen and phosphorus: the planar inorganic P2 N3- ion that owes its stability to aromaticity, an effect traditionally reserved for organic compounds.

  • New Simple Substances: Dr. Cummins is exceptionally interested in making new simple substances. He and his team have prepared tetrahedral molecular AsP3 that could be isolated as a waxy solid and had never previously been synthesized even though it bridges the knowledge gap between P4 (white phosphorus) and As4. Additionally, he and his team are developing a method to prepare metaphosphate acid salts that are soluble in polar organic solvents therefore making easy access to new salts containing redox-active metal ions with possible applications as battery materials or oxidation catalysts.

  • Unanticipated Discoveries: By synthesizing a supramolecular ligand, Dr. Cummins discovered that it served as a molecular receptor for peroxide dianion meaning that it could support the reversible reduction of O2 to peroxide dianion. Additionally, he and his team have developed bulky anilide ligands for coordination chemistry producing exotic transition-metal complexes leading in turn to the discovery of startling new reactions including NN bond cleavage of the small molecules N2 and N2 O. Unanticipated discoveries such as these, stemming from target-driven exploratory synthesis investigations, pepper Dr. Cummins' research record and are evidence of the promise of his approach to uncovering new knowledge.

Bio

Christopher “Kit” Colin Cummins benefited from formative undergraduate research experiences carried out sequentially in the laboratories of Professors Susan E. Kegley, James P. Collman, and Peter T. Wolczanski, respectively of Middlebury College, Stanford University and Cornell University. He graduated from the latter institution with an A.B. degree in 1989. Following this he undertook inorganic chemistry graduate studies under the direction of Professor Richard R. Schrock at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, from which he obtained his Ph.D. degree in 1993 with a thesis entitled, “Synthetic Investigations Featuring Amidometallic Complexes.” Also in 1993 Kit joined the chemistry faculty at MIT as an Assistant Professor, and in 1996 he was promoted to his current rank of Professor. Kit's work has been recognized with Harvard University's E. Bright Wilson Prize, the Phi Lambda Upsilon National Fresenius Award, a Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, an Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Fellowship, the ACS Award in Pure Chemistry, the NSF Alan T. Waterman Award, the TR100 Award, an Alexander von Humboldt Research Award, the Dannie-Heineman Preis of the Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen, the ACS F. Albert Cotton Award in Synthetic Inorganic Chemistry, and the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in the Physical Sciences. Kit was also selected as the inaugural winner of the Inorganic Chemistry Lectureship Award, and as as recipient of the RSC Ludwig Mond Award. Kit has been elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is a corresponding member of the Akademie der Wissenschaften zu Göttingen.

Dr. Cummins was first motivated to do research by the excitement of discovery. He was fascinated by the ability for science to push back the boundaries of chemistry and the possibility of bringing new things into existence. In addition, he liked the fact that parts of the field of chemistry were, and continue to be, in their infancy such that an individual with a pioneering spirit could come in, make discoveries, and put new findings on the map of chemistry.

In his free time, aside from research, he enjoys sailing with his wife and daughter.

Website: http://web.mit.edu/ccclab and departmental website: http://chemistry.mit.edu/people/cummins-christopher

Awards

National Science Foundation Alan T. Waterman Award

Elected to membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences

American Chemical Society Award in Pure Chemistry

American Chemical Society F. Albert Cotton Award in Inorganic Synthesis

Raymond and Beverly Sackler Prize in the Physical Sciences