Scientist Profiles: Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff

Editor’s note: Sir Martyn Poliakoff will be speaking at the International Symposium on Green Chemistry 2015 in La Rochelle, France on May 4th, 2015. This symposium brings together scientists from around the world to talk about the past, present, and future of green chemistry. This year’s symposium will feature nine different subfields of green chemistry and promises to be a very educational event! Registration is open here.

Martyn Poliakoff

Sir Martyn Poliakoff is a Research Professor in Chemistry at the University of Nottingham and an enthusiastic supporter of Green Chemistry. He was elected Fellow of the Royal Society (2002), of the RSC (2002), and of the IChemE (2004) and awarded Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE) for “Services to Sciences” in the 2007/8 New Year Honours. He is the Foreign Secretary and Vice-President of the Royal Society, and he was knighted in 2015 for his services to Chemical Sciences. His research interests involve chemical applications of supercritical fluids, with particular emphasis on Green Chemistry. He is also well known for his extensive work on The Periodic Table of Videos.

Who or what would you say has had the greatest impact on your life as a chemist?

Undoubtedly my Ph.D. supervisor, Professor J.J. Turner FRS, has played the key role not only in shaping me as a chemist, diverting my boyish enthusiasm into productive directions, but also in mentoring me for most of my professional life. Of course there have been many others: George Pimentel, the inventor of the cryogenic technique, matrix isolation, that I used at the start of my career; Alec Campbell at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne who taught me how to teach; the legendary explosives lecturer Colonel B.D. Shaw who taught me the secret of successful lecture demonstrations; and Yuri Evgenievich Gorbaty who reminded me which things are genuinely important in science. Then there have been many green chemists whose work and enthusiasm has inspired me.

How did you transition into green chemistry? Were there any challenges you had to overcome? If so, how did you address them?

Green chemistry started in the USA in the early 1990s and highlighted the need for cleaner and more sustainable solvents for chemical processes. At that time, I was working (and still am) in the area of supercritical fluids. These are gasses, such as CO2 or steam, compressed until they are nearly as dense as liquids, which have an intriguing mix of the properties of liquids and gasses. I saw an opportunity to apply them to green chemistry or “clean technology” as it was called at that time in the UK. I applied for funding and, once I got started, I was hooked! I now consider green chemistry as one of the key areas of chemistry needed to address the challenges currently facing humanity.

Can you tell us a little about yourself and your role at Nottingham?

I was born in London. I had a Russian father and English mother, an Austrian nurse, and French cousins, so I have quite an international background! I studied chemistry at Cambridge and, despite poor results in my finals, I also did my Ph.D. there. I spent 7 years at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne and have been at the University of Nottingham since 1979, rising through the ranks from lecturer to professor. Currently I am a so-called Research Professor in Chemistry but spend about half my time away from Nottingham as Foreign Secretary of the Royal Society, the UK’s Academy of Science. In effect, I’m an ambassador for UK science and green chemistry. At Nottingham, I lead a research group of Ph.D. students and postdocs in collaboration with my colleague, Mike George. I also teach green chemistry and am the lead presenter in the university’s highly successful YouTube channel, the Periodic Table of Videos.

What advice would you give to students or younger researchers who want to build sustainability into their scientific work and careers? How can they get support from supervisors at their university/organization?

There isn’t a “right answer” to this question. It depends on the person, where they are and what research they are doing. However, it’s important to think how one’s experiments can be altered to generate less waste and to use less toxic, if not harmless, solvents and reagents. The key to success in science is to do things that others are not doing, to have an original approach. There are no shortcuts to achieving this. One needs to read the literature, to identify the weaknesses in other people’s approaches, and then to do much thinking. With luck and inspiration, you should think of something that is cleaner, better, and original. Your discovery. Your science. Once you’ve had the idea, getting support may not be so difficult because your reaction or process will probably be cheaper, either because the chemicals are less expensive or there is less waste for costly disposal. Getting people to give you time to think of the idea in the first place may be another matter, but a combination of enthusiasm and the promise of saving money may do the trick.

Which universities you would recommend for students who want to pursue green chemistry at the undergraduate level? What about at the graduate level?

This is another hard question. At the undergrad level, the key point is to learn plenty of chemistry and, if your course allows, some chemical engineering. Ratings and university rankings are less important. Indeed, many leading universities do not even mention green chemistry in their courses. This semester I have lectured to undergraduates at Oxford, Cambridge, and Imperial College; none of them appear to teach green chemistry at the undergraduate level. By contrast, at Nottingham, we have an introductory module on Green Chemistry and Process Engineering for our first year students, taught by both chemists and chemical engineers. So, in short, you have to look at the courses available in your list of possible universities, and those courses often change year on year.

You have inspired many students through your green chemistry courses at the University of Nottingham. How well do you think universities are preparing science and engineering students to solve global challenges?

My impression, albeit from anecdotal information and my own rather selective experience, is that many universities do not spend much time discussing with students how chemistry can help with these challenges, or even what the challenges are. Admittedly, later in courses, there are research-focused lectures that may explain how an individual professor is trying to solve the problems of hydrogen storage, improved solar cells, more efficient batteries or whatever. More generally, there is a need for chemists to have more awareness of engineering and vice versa. In the UK at least, there is much less crossover than I think is desirable. It’s not just a question of preparing chemists to be green. It’s also the rather obvious fact that, if chemists continue to confine themselves to the same traditional and unchanging reactors, they are less likely to uncover revolutionary new chemistry. Fortunately, the recent move in the direction of flow or continuous chemistry is beginning to rectify the situation, although rather slowly.

You’ve been involved in a lot of interdisciplinary projects during your career. What advice would you give about getting the most out of collaborations across disciplines?

People need to collaborate because they want to and because they need that combination of expertise to solve particular problems. They should not do it just because their university or funding agency is applying pressure to do it. Forced marriages are rarely a success. On the other hand, arranged marriages can often be very happy. So you should not be shy of seeking help in finding a suitable partner to work with you in solving your problem. Whatever happens, it is important to choose a partner whom you like. If relations are sticky at the beginning, they are unlikely to get better and may well get worse. Collaborative projects can be very productive. Often the partners can do things together which neither could do by themselves.

You’ve had a huge impact through your public communication work, especially with the Periodic Table of Videos. You have also supported the spread of green chemistry in Africa, particularly in Ethiopia. How have those experiences influenced your research?

These experiences have been both enjoyable and rewarding. I first visited Ethiopia in 2003 while my son was working as a volunteer physics teacher in a high school in the relatively remote town of Hossana. During the visit, I gave a talk about green chemistry at his school, a talk that turned out to be the first on that subject in Ethiopia. Encouraged by the other teachers at the school, we visited Addis Ababa University and met a chemist there, Dr. Nigist Asfaw, who has since become a close friend. Together with Nigist and my Nottingham colleague Pete Licence, I have promoted green chemistry in Ethiopia to the point where it is being taught in several universities and has become a major area of research to Ethiopian chemists. I have also benefited because seeing conditions in some parts of Ethiopia convinced me even more of the value of green chemistry. I have become passionate about science in Africa, not just in Ethiopia. More practically, my involvement has enabled the University of Nottingham to begin training some of the next generation of Ethiopian scientists. My interest in Africa has helped me appreciate the terrible scourge of malaria, and recently, Mike George and I have been leading a photochemical research project at Nottingham to improve the process for making the antimalarial drug artemisinin.

My involvement with the Periodic Table of Videos has had less of an impact on my research, but it has been enormous fun and has taken me to many places that I would never have visited otherwise, like the Bullion Vault of the Bank of England, the Johnston Matthey noble metal refinery, or the UK National Nuclear Laboratories. It has also given me the chance to reacquaint myself with whole areas of chemistry that I had largely forgotten. Most of all, I have had the opportunity to try to communicate my enthusiasm for chemistry to a new generation of chemists around the globe.

What do you still want to achieve?

That is a somewhat terminal question! The short answer is that I want to continue doing interesting and original science for as long as I enjoy it. Who knows how long that will be? Colonel Shaw gave his last explosives lecture at the age of 92. My mother’s cousin, the distinguished medical scientist Philip D’Arcy Hart, gave his last keynote conference lecture at the age of 98 and published his last paper when he was 104! More seriously, I am keen to help photochemistry become firmly established as a routine and effective technique for manufacturing chemicals. And I would like enable supercritical fluids, especially supercritical CO2, to be widely used as a solvent in chemical processes.

Thank you very much for sharing your thoughts and experiences with us! We look forward to seeing you at the ISGC 2015.

contributed by Stephen Kass