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K-State Today

September 27, 2018

Chemistry professor receives NSF funding to create synthetic enzyme-inspired catalysts

Submitted by Daniel Higgins

Tendai Gadzikwa and graduate student Kanchana Samarakoon look at the structure of their MOFs by X-ray scattering methods.

Tendai Gadzikwa, assistant professor of chemistry, has received a three-year, $425,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop new catalysts with designs inspired by enzymes. 

As nature's premier catalysts, enzymes catalyze reactions at rates up to a million times faster than existing industrial catalysts. Moreover, they do so with unparalleled selectivity, producing only the desired product. If industrial catalysts that perform as well as enzymes could be developed, then commercial reactions could be conducted at a greatly reduced cost, both in terms of energy consumption and waste generation. 

Gadzikwa and her research group in the chemistry department are developing catalysts specifically for the efficient conversion of petroleum-based raw materials into chemical feedstocks for the pharmaceutical industry. Their project focuses on catalytic routes to chiral amines — molecules that come in left-handed and right-handed forms — and are frequently occurring components of biologically active molecules used as pharmaceuticals. Chiral amines of a single handedness are currently accessed via an inefficient industrial process. 

To develop more economical routes to these valuable chemicals, the Gadzikwa lab is co-opting the strategies of enzymes and transferring them onto the solid-state scaffold of metal-organic framework materials. Enzymes work by strongly binding chemical reactants within shape-selective confined spaces that incorporate molecular structures that promote and direct the reaction. Metal-organic framework materials are organized molecular assemblies of metal ions and organic linkers whose interiors the Gadzikwa group will tailor to mimic the active sites within enzymes. 

Along with developing important new routes for the production of catalytically active metal-organic frameworks, this project also will provide students from traditionally underrepresented groups in science with valuable opportunities to contribute to cutting-edge research. The Gadzikwa lab draws students from the Kansas State Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation, the K-State Developing Scholars Program for first-generation university students, and the NSF Research Experiences for Undergraduates program. 

Gadzikwa also is committed to broadening participation in science by leading public outreach activities that promote chemistry to Kansas' K-12 students.