Nick Smith directs Yale’s new Catalysis and Separations Center

February 28, 2024

Chemistry alumnus Nick Smith ’20 Ph.D. has returned to Yale as the inaugural director of the University’s new Catalysis and Separations Center.

For the past five months, he’s been building out the Center’s resources to serve researchers who study catalysis and synthetic chemistry. The goal is to help scientists at Yale more rapidly make and characterize compounds. This is crucial for the development of new methods to make pharmaceuticals, the synthesis of novel materials, and the identification of compounds that can store energy – to name a few applications.

In anticipation of the Center’s grand opening on March 11, we met with Smith in the Class of 1954 Chemistry Research Building on Science Hill to learn about the latest addition to Yale’s research capabilities.

Tell us about the Center.

Nick Smith: We’re a multi-user facility, and we’re focused on three major areas: high throughput chemistry, chemical separations, and data-rich experimentation. Our goal is to provide modern instrumentation for researchers in synthesis and catalysis.

Can you talk about the instruments available to study catalysis?

Smith: Absolutely. For high throughput experimentation (HTE), we have a liquid dispensing robot, and a solid dispensing robot is on the way. For analytical separations, an UHPLC (ultra-high pressure liquid chromatography) and an SFC (supercritical fluid chromatography). For data-rich experimentation, we have an EasyMax automated reactor.

There is more information on our website.

What are some examples of how these instruments are used?

Smith: Researchers can use equipment for HTE to run 24, 48, 96, or even more reactions at once. The UHPLC and SFC are used for rapid analysis of chemical reactions. SFC is particularly helpful for chiral separations. These systems combined can separate complex reaction mixtures and do so in minutes. Rapid data collection is vital to enabling HTE.

The EasyMax reactor allows researchers to record all data associated with the reaction – temperature, pressure, reagent addition, etc. – and allows them to observe the progress of the reaction in real time.  

What should people do if they want to use the Center’s resources?

Smith: They should email me directly.

It’s fun when you’re the first person to do something, right? This is your baby that you get to build. What excites you about that, and what are the challenges?

Smith: There’s a lot of opportunity for a brand-new catalysis and separations center because this isn’t something that every university has. There are only a handful of similar centers at universities in North America. And everyone is different; each center has a different set of problems that are unique to the researchers at that institution. And so, they each come up with a different solution.

It’s exciting to learn what everybody’s doing and see where the Center can help out, but it’s challenging to pick where the Center can make the biggest impact. There’s just so much great science going on!

You are not new to New Haven. You were here for at least five years earning your Ph.D. What are you excited to come back to in New Haven?

Smith: One of the things I was most excited to come back to is the people. I really enjoyed who I worked with while I was here. It’s something that I missed when I was gone, and it’s something that I enjoy now that I’m back.

About the Center Director

Nick Smith ’20 Ph.D. is a synthetic chemist by training. He earned a bachelor’s degree from the University of Minnesota and a Ph.D. in chemistry from Yale University in 2020, where he conducted research in the laboratory of Professor Nilay Hazari. He completed postdoctoral research with Professor Clark Landis at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He has worked on projects involving synthesis, kinetics, and mechanistic studies, all focused on catalysis.

Check out the Yale Catalysis and Separations Center website, join the mailing list to receive Center news, and come to the grand opening on March 25!