Omar Yaghi Wins Prestigious Tang Prize for Sustainable Development

June 18, 2024
By: Rachel Leven, CDSS
Omar Yaghi sitting in office with colorful cellular models in background.
Omar Yaghi is co-director and chief scientist of the Bakar Institute of Digital Materials for the Planet and the James and Neeltje Tretter professor of chemistry at the College of Chemistry.  
(Photo courtesy of Omar Yaghi)

UC Berkeley’s Omar Yaghi received a top sustainability prize on June 18 for his pioneering discoveries unlocking essential tools to combat the climate crisis.

Yaghi won the Tang Prize for Sustainable Development in recognition of his groundbreaking efforts founding and advancing the field of reticular chemistry. He has proven that the ultra porous materials known as metal-organic frameworks and covalent organic frameworks can help address urgent global challenges like reducing planet-warming emissions, air pollution and water scarcity.

“It is a distinct honor to be awarded the prestigious Tang prize,” said Yaghi, co-director and chief scientist of the Bakar Institute of Digital Materials for the Planet (BIDMaP) and the James and Neeltje Tretter professor of chemistry at the College of Chemistry.

“Human civilizations have always relied on designing materials to create new economies and address societal problems of the day,” he said. “Reticular chemistry and the resulting materials we’ve been developing over the last 35 years advance our society in being able to precisely control matter on the atomic and molecular levels. This will continue to be the key to achieving viable solutions in sustainability.”

The Tang Prize of Taiwan is one of the world’s most renowned awards, given to changemakers in sustainable development and three other categories every two years. Each category of winners receive a $1.7 million cash reward, including $350,000 to use as a grant for their research. Past Berkeley winners include Jennifer Doudna and Arthur Rosenfeld.

Climate progress can’t come fast enough. Earlier this month, the United Nations secretary-general warned the world will face “a climate hell” if society doesn’t take extreme, swift measures to limit the world’s warming and related greenhouse gas emissions.

“Omar’s brilliant work in developing covalent chemistry beyond molecules has led to the discovery of new nanoporous materials with useful properties for clean energy and environmental remediation, including carbon dioxide capture, hydrogen and methane storage, and harvesting water from desert air,” said Douglas Clark, dean of Berkeley’s College of Chemistry. “These advances hold great promise for mitigating climate change, and for improving quality of life and preserving the environment throughout the world.”

For Yaghi, this work is personal. He was born in the desert and experienced firsthand water scarcity. Today, he uses his own research to help people in communities facing similar challenges. He expressed appreciation for faculty, students and others across the globe “who have helped and contributed to the establishment of reticular chemistry.”

The field of reticular chemistry is capable of revolutionizing how society experiences and impacts the climate and water stresses. Yaghi has demonstrated how these ultra porous materials could remove carbon dioxide from the air and other point sources, which could help stem the planet’s warming. He turned water molecules from desert air into drinkable water, which can expand access to clean water. He showed how reticular chemistry could triple natural gas cars’ fuel economy, which could reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And he sped up the process of chemistry discovery using AI, which will accelerate progress towards other climate solutions.

Yaghi holds 60 U.S. patents and has been recognized internationally with numerous prestigious awards. The Tang Prize is another well-deserved acknowledgment of Yaghi’s contributions, which could help save people and the planet, said Jennifer Chayes, dean of Berkeley’s College of Computing, Data Science, and Society.

“Omar’s work illustrates how academic research can change the world when experts put societal benefit at the forefront of their endeavors,” said Chayes, whose college includes the Bakar Institute of Digital Materials for the Planet. “We need innovators across disciplines to follow his lead by finding scalable solutions to prevent the most devastating impacts of climate change."

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