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Dennis Clouthier, Professor of Chemistry, Retires after 33 Years at UK

This May we celebrate and recognize the career of Professor Dennis Clouthier, who is retiring from UK after over thirty years of teaching, research, and service to our university community. While it is impossible to quantify Clouthier’s impact on academic and scientific communities, here an attempt is made to highlight some of his most notable accomplishments.  

Clouthier is well known for his pioneering work in molecular spectroscopy, using high-powered lasers to examine reactive intermediates that are particularly difficult to study. His pioneering work has led to the development of new laboratory methods, such as pyrolysis jet spectroscopy, and has significant implications for fields as diverse as understanding the fabric of the cosmos and reducing computer chip impurities.

As a teenager, Clouthier dreamed of making a career out of doing laser light shows for rock bands. However, his self-admitted lack of artistic eye or musical ear led him to pursue alternate career options in science.  When given the opportunity to apply laser techniques to chemistry problems, he jumped at the chance. A large portion of his graduate research at University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon, where he earned a Ph.D. in chemistry in 1980, utilized lasers to study the spectra and properties of small molecules.

Clouthier further immersed himself in laser spectroscopy as a postdoctoral researcher at the Herzberg Institute of Astrophysics (HIA) at the National Research Council in Ottawa, Canada. While at the HIA, he gained a strong appreciation for the precise wavelengths at which molecules absorb light, and how laser spectroscopy can be used to understand molecular structures and their reactivity.  

When Clouthier joined the Department of Chemistry at the University of Kentucky in 1984, he decided to use laser spectroscopy to study reaction intermediates. These highly energetic, short-lived fragments of molecules are often free radicals or transient molecules that very readily react with other more stable molecules. Clouthier has evolved new ways to generate reactive intermediates, using high temperatures, electric sparks, or high intensity flashes of light to break apart stable molecules.

By establishing the existence of previously unknown reactive intermediates and using their spectra to establish their structures (e.g., bond lengths, bond angles, which atoms are connected to which), Clouthier has provided methods for identifying them in real-world environments. Much of Clouthier’s work, which was funded by the National Science Foundation (10 grants as the lead investigator), Petroleum Research Fund, Kentucky Science and Technology Corporation, and Department of Energy, has been devoted to studying intermediates that are relevant to the fabrication of semiconductors, which are used in a variety of electronic devices. Clouthier’s work in the characterization of sulfur-containing reactive intermediates is relevant to combustion of high-sulfur coal, the problems of the production of sulfur compounds in automotive catalytic converters, and their contribution to acid rain.

Over the course of his academic career, Clouthier’s research has resulted in over 180 peer-reviewed publications, most of which were published in the Journal of Chemical Physics, as well as eight publications in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.  Three reports in Chemical and Engineering News featured reports on his work involving main group dicarbides, quantum beats in germylidene, and the discovery of a silicon-carbon triple bond. As a result of these accomplishments, Clouthier was named a UK Research Professor in 1997 and a College of Arts & Sciences Distinguished Professor in 2007. Most recently, Clouthier has twce been Invited Plenary Speaker at the 66th International Symposium on Molecular Spectroscopy, most recently in Columbus, Ohio, in 2010). 

Prof. Clouthier directed five M.S. theses and ten Ph.D. dissertations, and taught hundreds of undergraduate and graduate students in general and physical chemistry courses, which include Quantum Chemistry, Molecular Spectroscopy and Photophysics, Chemical Kinetics and Reaction Dynamics, and Molecular Structure. His flair for teaching was formally recognized by the College of Arts & Sciences with the 2004 Outstanding Teaching Award.   

While Prof. Clouthier will be greatly missed on campus, we look forward to hearing about his adventures in this next chapters of his life.


written by Susan Odom, with some content lifted from an Ampersand article by Brianna Bodine