McMahon Research Group

Orion Nebula

Orion Nebula viewed from the Hubble Telescope overlaid with highly unsaturated molecules of astrochemical interest

Research Overview

Our interdisciplinary research program impacts diverse areas of chemical and physical science, including astrochemistry, flames and combustion, soot formation, atmospheric chemistry, lithography, plasmas, and electrical discharge. The inherent complexity of these chemical environments demands an integrated study involving organic chemistry, molecular spectroscopy, and quantum chemistry. Through these combined efforts, it is possible to generate and characterize the prototypical reactive intermediates in organic chemistry and to probe their structure and spectroscopy in unprecedented detail. These fundamental structural, spectroscopic, and mechanistic data provide a foundation for understanding the chemistry of organic matter in harsh environments.

Our research reaches beyond chemistry and cuts across diverse areas of contemporary science. In the area of combustion chemistry, the determination of accurate equilibrium structures of reactive intermediates provides important benchmarks for prototypical molecules. In the area of astrochemistry, the program addresses fundamental questions concerning the chemical nature of what is now recognized to be the dominant reservoir of organic compounds in the universe. A deeper understanding of the organic chemistry of space may carry implications concerning the origin of life. In the area of atmospheric chemistry of Titan and primitive Earth, fundamental mechanistic questions associated with the splitting of molecular nitrogen are probed.

Our collaborative research projects create an environment for training the next generation of scientists in the study of complex chemical problems as part of an interdisciplinary research team. Students are immersed in an environment of exceptional breadth, encompassing organic chemistry, reaction mechanism, quantum chemistry, molecular spectroscopy, and theoretical chemical physics. They encounter the intellectual challenge of mastering multiple disciplines, and they confront the challenging problem of communicating across divisional boundaries.