The National Science Foundation has announced a five-year, $1.8 million award to establish the NSF Center for Integrated Catalysis, or CIC, effective Sept. 1. The center will be led by Paula Diaconescu, a UCLA professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

The center will develop the fundamental chemistry needed to prepare synthetic plastics in a novel way. The research could lead to new materials that are sustainable, degradable and of high enough complexity for commercial uses.

The inspiration for the research conducted at the CIC, Diaconescu said, comes from nature’s ability to produce structurally complex products by combining a number of different processes and chemical reactions. Synthetic chemists, on the other hand, generally run each chemical reaction individually and sequentially in order to create a product. The goal of the CIC is to mimic the efficiency of biological systems in synthetic chemical catalytic processes.

To that end, researchers with the center will work to create a system that employs a single chemical reactor using multiple, spatially separated catalysts that could also be switched on or off by using light or electrochemical stimuli.

Simple starting materials will be used to “supply networks of multiple catalysts operating together on a single platform, with the aid of temporal and spatial control, to produce new polymeric materials,” Diaconescu said.

The center will also host monthly seminars, including sessions on chemistry and other scientific topics, as well as on business and entrepreneurship.

An important goal of the CIC is to ensure the recruitment and retention of students who are underrepresented in the sciences for the center’s research and activities, which will include training students in interdisciplinary collaborative chemistry.

Chong Liu, an assistant professor of chemistry and biochemistry who holds the Jeffery and Helo Zink Development Chair at UCLA, is among the faculty members of the center, which also includes researchers from Boston College, the University of Houston and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.