Wen Zhang

2022 Regional Award Winner — Post-Doc

Wen Zhang

Current Position:
Postdoctoral Fellow

Cornell University

Organic Chemistry

Recognized for: Harnessing electrochemistry to promote reactions of carbon-based compounds without relying on rare or hazardous materials. Historically, chemists have relied on transition metals—such as palladium or nickel—to manipulate the bonds between carbons atoms in organic molecules. Organic chemist, Wen Zhang is pushing forward the burgeoning field of electrochemical synthesis, which uses electricity to promote reactions instead of transition metals, by demonstrating the ability to manipulate carbon bonds in ways that are required to synthesize drugs and other medicinally-relevant compounds. Zhang’s work is sparking a wave of new methods for synthesizing chemicals, and may prove critical in making chemistry more sustainable in the future.


Areas of Research Interest and Expertise: Organic Chemistry, Electrochemistry, Synthetic Chemistry, Radical Chemistry

Previous Positions: 

BS, Sichuan University, China
PhD, Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, China (Advisor: Guosheng Liu)

Research Summary: 

Many chemical reactions rely on the creation of radicals, molecules with an unpaired valence electron. Enzymes do this naturally to promote chemical reactions in our body, and chemists have been using transition metals, such as nickel or palladium, to create radicals in the lab. Wen Zhang, PhD, is forging a new path by discovering chemical reactions using electrochemistry: the practice of applying an electric current to chemical compounds. By creating radicals just using electricity, Zhang fosters reactions necessary to make drugs with much less energy and fewer rare or hazardous materials.

Zhang’s postdoctoral work began by utilizing light and electricity to unlock new reactivity from riboflavin, an enzyme cofactor found naturally in the body. Inspired by these findings, Zhang turned to using electricity on its own to promote chemical reactions. He has made his most significant impact by demonstrating the ability to take a common type of carbon-based compound, alkyl halides, and transform them into more functional, medicinally-relevant compounds like drugs. Manipulating alkyl halides is a particularly challenging but significant kind of reaction, and Zhang was one of the first to demonstrate a more practical method to perform these reactions using electrochemistry. Similar transformations are hard to achieve using conventional synthetic methods. Zhang’s discoveries have inspired multiple new projects within his current research group and have already established him as a leader in the burgeoning field of electrochemical synthesis.

My research focuses on developing novel synthetic methods to construct complex molecules from readily available feedstocks using electrochemistry. My research goal is to help people make pharmaceuticals and materials faster, more efficiently, and more sustainably using our developed methods.

Key Publications: 

  1. W. Zhang, L. Lu, W. Zhang, Y. Wang, S.D. Ware, J. Mondragon, J. Rein, N. Strotman, D. Lehnherr, K.A. See, S. Lin. Electrochemically driven cross-electrophile coupling of alkyl halides. Nature, 2022.
  2. W. Zhang, S. Lin. Electroreductive Carbofunctionalization of Alkenes with Alkyl Bromides via a Radical-Polar Crossover Mechanism. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 2020.
  3. W. Zhang, K.L. Carpenter, S. Lin. Electrochemistry Broadens the Scope of Flavin Photocatalysis: Photoelectrocatalytic Oxidation of Unactivated Alcohols. Angewandte Chemie International Edition, 2019.

Other Honors:

2019First Prize, Shanghai Natural Science Award
2019Excellent Doctoral Dissertation, Chinese Academy of Sciences
2019Reaxys PhD Prize Finalist, Elsevier
2018Outstanding graduate students of University of Chinese Academy of Sciences
2017Special Prize of the President Scholarship for Postgraduate Students, Chinese Academy of Sciences
2016Graduate National Scholarship, China


In the Media: 

Cornell ChronicleElectrosynthesis energizes sustainable drug development

Chemical & Engineering NewsElectrochemistry forges C–C bonds in two new cross-electrophile couplings

Nature Electrification promotes tricky synthetic chemical reactions

SynformElectrochemically Driven Cross-Electrophile Coupling of Alkyl Halides