Douglas Stephan wins 2021 Killam Prize

February 3, 2021 by Dan Haves

University Professor Douglas Stephan of the University of Toronto's department of chemistry has been recognized with the 2021 Killam Prize in natural sciences. Presented by the Canada Council for the Arts (CCFA), the awards honour eminent Canadian scholars and scientists actively engaged in research.

Stephan’s discovery of frustrated Lewis pairs (FLP) is internationally recognized for its wide-ranging impact on nearly every aspect of chemistry research, particularly in the context of drug development, chemical production, renewable energy and sustainability.

His work in FLP chemistry has become so integral to new research efforts around the world that you will often find its principles being taught in university classrooms.

“The chemical concept of frustrated Lewis pairs is actually quite simple,” says Stephan. “It’s unexpected and surprising,  but remarkably simple. It is this simplicity that provides implications across the discipline permitting developments in organic synthesis, materials and  polymer chemistry as well as catalysis.”

Previous Killam Prize winners at U of T include University Professors John Polanyi (1988) and Paul Brumer (2000) of the department of chemistry, as well as University Professors Barbara Sherwood Lollar (2019) of Earth sciences and Molly Shoichet (2017) of the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering, both affiliated with the department of chemistry.

“Looking at the list of previous winners, I  am humbled to have our work included with the work of such exceptional people. I am also so very grateful to my colleagues who have been so gracious in supporting me.”

Stephan joined the department of chemistry at U of T in 2008 as a Tier 1 Canada Research Chair after 25 years as a faculty member at the University of Windsor. He’s received several national and international awards, most recently the 2019 John C. Polanyi Award, the 2019 E.W.R. Steacie Award and a 2020 Guggenheim Fellowship. He was previously honoured by the CCFA in 2009 with a Killam Research Fellowship.

“The underlying theory of Lewis acid-base pairs, in which a Lewis acid interacts with a Lewis base, is considered to be a central concept of chemistry,” says Rob Batey, professor and chair of the department of chemistry. “It’s essential for the understanding of chemical reactivity and bonding, and as such it is taught at the high school level and beyond.

“The elegant insight by Professor Stephan that the introduction of bulky groups around both a strong Lewis acid and Lewis base would prevent or ‘frustrate’ the expected formation of a strong Lewis acid-base pair, and that this unrequited partnership would unleash novel reactivity, was both ground-breaking and unexpected within the Chemistry community.”

In addition to the discovery and advancement of FLP chemistry, Stephan has made significant contributions to the production of plastics. A core theme of Stephan’s work is the shift from precious metal catalysts to earth-abundant metals or metal-free catalytic transformations, leading to scientific discoveries that are cheaper and more sustainable.

His discovery of a new class of catalysts paved the way for NOVA Chemicals, the largest solution polymerization plant in the world, to change how it produces plastics.

“We are continuing to explore and use the broader implications of FLP chemistry to develop new approaches to some of the discipline’s most challenging problems,” he says.

“Our targets include energy efficient catalysis, greenhouse gas remediation and innovative strategies to new drug libraries.”