Professor Shannon Stahl Honored for Green Chemistry Research

Graduate student David Mannel, along with Stahl and Root, work on a continuous-flow oxygen reactor.
Graduate student David Mannel (kneeling) works on a continuous-flow oxygen oxidation reactor as Root (left) and Stahl (right) observe.

University of Wisconsin-Madison chemistry Professor Shannon Stahl is one of five scientists nationwide to receive a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in recognition of his research on using oxygen from the air in chemical reactions. 

In the late 1990s, Stahl launched his investigation into so-called aerobic oxidations, which harness oxygen to synthesize chemicals in a way that minimizes the amount of waste created in the process. In 2007, Stahl's team began a two-year partnership with researchers at Eli Lilly and Company to test their methods in an industrial setting. 

Soon after, the group began working with Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Thatcher Root to develop tools for adapting chemistry and engineering methods to industrial pharmaceutical settings. The two labs later expanded their collaboration to include a consortium of pharmaceutical companies, including Eli Lilly, Merck & Co. and Pfizer. 

Stahl's research has created a methodological foundation for pharmaceutical companies to incorporate aerobic oxidations into production processes — and he's also brought that innovation back to the classroom. In 2013 Stahl, former postdoctoral fellow Jessica Hoover and organic chemistry lab director Nicholas Hill created a laboratory module for undergraduate organic chemistry students. Each year, the module exposes more than a thousand students to catalysis by using aerobic oxidations. In the process, students learn techniques used by professional pharmaceutical chemists. 

"This project has gone from basic science and fundamental catalyst development to a practical method that organic chemists use at the bench to a process that can be applied on large scale," Stahl says. "And from there it went to the undergraduate laboratory where students are just learning about chemistry for the first time."

Grants from Eli Lilly, the National Institutes of Health, the Camille & Henry Dreyfus Foundation, the American Chemical Society Green Chemistry Institute's Pharmaceutical Roundtable, Merck & Co., Pfizer and the U.S. Department of Energy have supported specific portions of Stahl's work at various times.

–Libby Dowdall, ldowdall@chem.wisc.edu