Mahdi Abu-Omar

Mellichamp Chair of Green Chemistry

Contact Phone


Office Location

Chem 3241



Dr. Abu-Omar completed his Ph.D. from Iowa State University and postdoc from Caltech with Harry Gray. He is the associate director of the Center for Catalytic Conversion of Biomass to Biofuels (C3Bio), an Energy Frontiers Research Center funded by the Department of Energy. Mahdi is the Founder and President of Spero Energy, Inc., a green specialty chemicals company and a technology provider for the manufacture of high value renewable chemicals from biomass. He is a Fellow of the American Association for Advancement of Science (AAAS) since 2012 and was a Senior Fulbright Fellow (2008). His recognitions include the Crano Memorial Lectureship from ACS Akron Section (2013), JPP Young Investigator Award from the Society of Porphyrins and Phthalocyanins (2010), Beckman Young Investigator Award (1999), and NSF CAREER Award (1998). He chaired the Gordon Research Conference on Inorganic Reaction Mechanisms in 2013.


Our research group works at the interface of inorganic chemistry and catalysis to address outstanding issues in energy science, sustainability and green chemistry. Much of modern life materials are based on nonrenewable petroleum. We are active in two areas of research, biomass conversion and bio-inspired chemistry, to discover and develop new transformations and molecules that can serve as monomers for new materials and/or precursors to renewable liquid fuels.

In catalytic conversion of nonfood biomass, we have demonstrated novel methods to convert lignin into two high value phenols. These molecules can be used as monomers to make thermoplastics, precursors to aromatic compounds, and they can be deoxygenated further to high octane hydrocarbon fuels. An attractive feature of our lignin first approach is the preservation of the cellulose, which we have shown can be upgraded via catalysis to value added chemicals or fuel precursors.

In our bioinspired project, we have prepared metal oxo complexes and investigated their use in small molecule activation such as dioxygen and chlorite. In a recent example we discovered and characterized unusual valence tautomerization in manganese oxo corrole that affords upon addition of a proton or a Lewis acid reactivity that spans seven orders of magnitude. These findings illuminate how nature’s enzymes work and provide insight on how we as molecular engineers can design and prepare catalysts tailored for function much like nature does in metalloproteins.

A common theme in our research is catalyst design based on mechanistic understanding on the molecular scale. To determine reaction mechanisms and structure-function relationships, we study chemical kinetics, characterize intermediates, and employ state-of-the art spectroscopy under operando conditions. Graduate students and postdoctoral scholars in the group are given the freedom to tailor their own projects and are encouraged to collaborate with their colleagues in the lab as well as peers in other groups on campus with whom we share common scientific interests.



  1. Hao Luo, Ian M. Klein, Yuan Jiang, Hanyu Zhu, Hilkka I. Kenttämaa, and Mahdi M. Abu-Omar “Total Utilization of Miscanthus Biomass, Lignin and Carbohydrate, Using Earth Abundant Nickel Catalyst” ACS Sustainable Chem. & Eng. 20164, 2316–2322. Link to article>>
  2. Kothanda Rama Pichaandi, Lara Kabalan, Sabre Kais and Mahdi M. Abu-Omar “Mechanism of Isomerization and Methyl Migration in Heterobimetallic Rhenium-Iridium Complexes: Experimental and DFT Study” Organometallics201635, 605-611.  Link to article>>

  3. Ian Klein, Christopher Marcum, Hilkka Kenttämaa, and Mahdi M. Abu-Omar, “Mechanistic investigation of the Zn/Pd/C catalyzed cleavage and hydrodeoxygenation of lignin” Green Chem. 201618, 2399-2405. Link to article>>

  4. Curt J. Bougher, Shuo Liu, Scott D. Hicks and Mahdi M. Abu-Omar “Valence Tautomerization of High-Valent Manganese(V)-Oxo Corrole Induced by Protonation of the Oxo Ligand” J. Am. Chem. Soc., 2015, 137, 14481-14487. Link to article>>

  5. Trenton Parsell, Sara Yohe, John Degenstein, Tiffany Jarrell, Ian Klein, Emre Gencer, Barron Hewetson, Matt Hurt, Jeong Im Kim, Harshavardhan Choudhari, Basudeb Saha, Richard Meilan, Nathan Mosier, Fabio Ribeiro, W. Nicholas Delgass, Clint Chapple, Hilkka I. Kenttämaa, Rakesh Agrawal and Mahdi M. Abu-Omar “A synergistic biorefinery based on catalytic conversion of lignin prior to cellulose starting from lignocellulosic biomass” Green Chem., 2015, 17, 1492-1499. Link to article>>

  6. Robert B. Balow, Erik J. Sheets, Mahdi M. Abu-Omar and Rakesh Agrawal “Synthesis and Characterization of Copper Arsenic Sulfide Nanocrystals from Earth Abundant Elements for Solar Energy Conversion” Chem. Mater., 201527, 2290-2293. Link to article>>

  7. Ashish Bohre, Saikat Dutta, Basudeb Saha and Mahdi M. Abu-Omar “Upgrading Furfurals to Drop-in Biofuels: An Overview” ACS Sustainable Chem. Eng.20153, 1263-1277. Link to article>>

  8. Shou Zhao and Mahdi M. Abu-Omar “Biobased Epoxy Nanocomposites Derived from Lignin-Based Monomers” Biomacromolecules 201516, 2025-2031. Link to article>>