Princeton chemist wins Keck Foundation award to explore quantum mechanics and chemical reactions

Tuesday, Jul 24, 2018

Princeton chemist Gregory Scholes has been awarded $1,000,000 by the W.M. Keck Foundation to investigate harnessing the wave basis of quantum mechanics to drive chemical reactions. 

If successful, this breakthrough will suggest possibilities for understanding and controlling biochemical reactions.

Scholes, the William S. Tod Professor of Chemistry, works within the field of “quantum biology,” where investigators have been asking whether biology attains functions by using quantum physics. In this Keck-funded project, “Function Through Coherence,” Scholes will try to prove that chemical reactions can be controlled using quantum mechanical methods; this finding would be at odds with the belief -- commonly held since Linus Pauling’s work in the field -- that chemical change generally proceeds in a stepwise fashion.

According to Scholes, when he set out to conceive of this project, he wanted to demonstrate “an example of quantum effects in chemistry that would be clear, simple and easily conveyed to a broad audience in just a few sentences.” So, conceptualizing the project – the choice of the system to study, and the motivation and reasoning behind that choice – was an important first step.

Scholes explains, “The challenge is to work out how to design experiments that can convincingly distinguish the quantum phenomena from standard chemical background processes (like the rates of reaction). I was working on the proposal while at a conference in Telluride, Colorado. While hiking above the town at about 13,000 feet elevation, the inspiration for the experiments hit me. I stopped and made a bunch of notes right there among the wildflowers!”

This “bold and conceptually risky” project will use an approach markedly different from other work in this emerging field of coherence in chemistry, and one that has implications for biochemistry. Scholes hopes to produce and detect a quantum entanglement of two chemical reactions that each involve the shift of a hydrogen atom bond from one adjacent atom to another. Hydrogen transfer processes are common in biochemical reactions; thus, these findings should suggest possibilities for understanding biochemical reactions.

In addition, Scholes, a leader in the field of spectroscopy, will develop ultra-fast spectroscopy techniques to measure the evolution of the quantum entanglements and search for distinctly “exotic” phases or properties. As he notes, “Detecting quantum coherence is not the same as measuring it.” The project will make use of one of the largest magnets in the world, the Florida Split-Helix magnet developed at the National High Magnetic Field Laboratory.

Scholes’s excitement about the project is palpable. “I’m absolutely delighted to have the chance – thanks to the Keck Foundation – to accomplish this research. We are working hard and our results have the potential to be mind-blowing.”

Postdoc Kyra Schwarz, a graduate from the University of Melbourne, leads the project team that includes Princeton graduate students Ben Zhang, Luhao Zhang, and Siwei Wang, as well as a visiting student from Kyoto University in Japan, Tatsushi Ikeda.

The Research Program of the W.M. Keck Foundation is providing a three-year grant, totaling $1 million. This Keck program aims “to benefit humanity” by funding projects in science and engineering that are “distinctive and novel in their approach, question the prevailing paradigm, or have the potential to break open new territory in their field.”

Keck Foundation Supports High-Impact Research

Based in Los Angeles, the W. M. Keck Foundation was established in 1954 by the late W. M. Keck, founder of the Superior Oil Company. The foundation’s grant making is focused primarily on pioneering efforts in the areas of medical research, science and engineering and undergraduate education. The Foundation also maintains a Southern California Grant Program that provides support for the Los Angeles community, with a special emphasis on children and youth. For more information, please visit