Yale Chemistry Professor Has the Key for More Sustainable Agro-Chemicals

Nilay Hazari, Professor of Chemistry at Yale, did not anticipate that his work around catalysts would one day lead to real commercial opportunity. “Our goal was to develop something as an academic endeavor,” Hazari says. But when Hazari presented his technology to the Office of Cooperative Research (OCR), they saw potential. What Hazari and an enterprising graduate student named Patrick Melvin have developed is a novel method of catalysis using palladium—a technology that will make it easier to synthesize insecticides, pesticides and pharmaceuticals in a more sustainable way.

“The technology has been known for 50 years,” Hazari says. In fact, three researchers were awarded the Nobel Prize for their work on palladium-derived catalysis in 2010. “But ours is more efficient,” Hazari adds, “and that should save companies money because they will need less starting material.”

Melvin, who has worked on this pre-catalyst for the past five years in Hazari’s lab says: “A previous graduate student had been working on a very specific type of palladium pre-catalyst and his studies showed limitations. My goal was to create a system which avoided these limitations. It was a truly collaborative effort.”

Yale has just partnered with a global leader in the provision of industrial scale catalytic agents to make the Hazari catalytic system widely available to manufacturers worldwide.

“I like to think that it’s possible to scale,” says Hazari, who adds that with the high price of palladium it’s impossible for his lab to test more than 25 grams. Industry needs amounts in kilograms—or even tons. 

David Lewin, Senior Associate Director of Business Development at OCR, has been working with Hazari since he first disclosed the new technology in 2013. He says “This is a great example of theory becoming practice—it’s not easy to partner catalysts, it has to be something pretty special.”

Hazari, who received tenure in 2016, is eager to see his catalyst put to the test—and to see the culmination of years of work from his graduate students.

“It’s eye-opening to see all the commercial aspects that go into licensing,” Hazari says. “I really relied on OCR to drive the process.”

Melvin, who is headed to a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Michigan, says the experience of bringing this technology forward to license has been immensely rewarding. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought that this project would result in this type of deal,” says Melvin. “It brought a unique dimension to my graduate work and I truly enjoyed the experience of seeing this go from a purely research project to something with a potentially large industry impact.”

CONTACT: Brita Belli, Communications Officer, Yale Office of Cooperative Research, (203)804-1911, brita.belli@yale.edu.