UCI chemist William Evans wins American Chemical Society's top award in inorganic chemistry

01/20/05

ACS recognizes Evans' contributions to understanding the chemistry of lanthanides, long considered the forgotten elements of the periodic table

Irvine, Calif., Jan. 20, 2005 -- For his many contributions to the chemistry of lanthanide elements, the American Chemical Society has awarded UC Irvine's William J. Evans its 2005 Award in Inorganic Chemistry. The annual award is the highest honor the ACS bestows in the field of inorganic chemistry, the study of substances not associated with living organisms.

Evans' research on lanthanides -- metals once considered not worth studying because they do not form compounds easily -- has made the elements a fertile subject of study in chemistry. Over the years, lanthanides found their way into daily life -- for example, providing the red color on television screens.

The ACS award recognizes and encourages "fundamental research in the field of inorganic chemistry" and gives special consideration to "independence of thought and originality." The award, established in 1960, includes a $5,000 prize and a certificate. Evans will receive the award March 15, 2005, at an event hosted by the ACS in San Diego.

"I am deeply honored to receive the award," said Evans, professor of chemistry and the only UCI faculty member to win the ACS Award in Inorganic Chemistry. "It is a validation of the choice I made years ago to study lanthanides. I hope the award draws more research interest to these formerly undervalued metals. They remain under-explored compared to the other metals in the periodic table, and their potential for new chemistry and applications is yet to be fully realized. It is an honor also to join the list of chemists who received this award in past years."

Past recipients of the award include several Nobel laureates and members of the National Academy of Sciences. Evans' doctoral and postdoctoral advisers, M. Frederick Hawthorne and the late Earl L. Muetterties, respectively, also are among the past recipients.

"Bill is a chemist of unusual independence and vision," said Larry Overman, professor of chemistry and colleague of Evans at UCI. "He began studying the chemistry of the lanthanide elements when it was a minor field of interest. His studies have played a central role in developing the fundamental understanding of lanthanide chemistry, knowledge that is allowing lanthanides to be employed increasingly to prepare organic molecules of medical and commercial interest."

Lanthanides, named after lanthanum, the first member of the series, are metals found in the ground as oxides, an oxide being any of a large class of chemical compounds in which oxygen is combined with another element. The physical properties of lanthanides lead to several applications in daily life. Cerium is an essential component in catalytic converters in automobiles. Gadolinium is used in magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) measurements. Because lanthanides react with air and moisture, they also find use in cigarette lighters, where they make the spark possible.

The chemical properties of lanthanides, on the other hand, were ignored by chemists for many years. While the chemical properties of most elements arise from the action of their valence (or bonding) electrons, for a lanthanide metal, the valence electrons are buried in the interior of the atom. As a result, the metals do not form compounds easily and were thought to have uninteresting chemistry. Over the years, however, due in large part to Evans' work, the metals have been shown to exhibit unique reactivity.

Currently, Evans' laboratory is developing lanthanides for use in the preparation of pharmaceuticals, as catalysts for making natural rubber, and for use in hydrogen-based fuel cell recycling.

"Congratulations to Bill on receiving the ACS Award for Inorganic Chemistry," said V. Ara Apkarian, chair of the chemistry department. "With this award, the department can celebrate preeminence in all major fields of chemistry, within its ranks being prior recipients of top honors in physical, atmospheric and organic chemistry."

Evans received his doctorate from UCLA in 1973 and did postdoctoral research at Cornell University. After obtaining tenure on the faculty of the University of Chicago, he came to UCI in 1982. The author or co-author of more than 250 research publications and patents, he has received many honors, including the 2004 Special Creativity Extension Award from the National Science Foundation, the 2002 Outstanding Contributions to Undergraduate Education Award from UCI's School of Physical Sciences and an Alfred P. Sloan Research Fellowship.

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