Roundtable Review

Hightable with Nobel Prize winner Professor Richard Schrock: The Metathesis Dance
Posted 13 August '13

In 2005 Professor Richard R. Schrock, along with his contemporaries Robert H. Grubbs & Yves Chauvin, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his seminal contributions to the development of Olefin Metathesis [1] The development of this fundamentally new way of modifying and creating structures has led to enormous advances in the fields of organic synthesis, materials science and in the future possibly the pharmaceutical industries. Whilst Professor Schrock is most famous for his work on Olefin Metathesis, his other research interests include his much acclaimed work on artificial nitrogen fixation systems. [2]

Olefin (another name for an alkene or a carbon-carbon double bonded compound) Metathesis is a process in which existing double bonds break and new ones are reformed in the presence of a catalyst (Figure 1).

Figure 1. In this pictorial ‘mechanism’ of Olefin Metathesis, the product (Cross Metathesis –Red/Blue) is formed by turnovers in the presence of excess. 2xBlue and 2XRed materials. Very little of the Blue/yellow product is formed as it is a by-product from the catalyst.

Figure 1. In this pictorial ‘mechanism’ of Olefin Metathesis, the product (Cross Metathesis –Red/Blue) is formed by turnovers in the presence of excess. 2xBlue and 2XRed materials. Very little of the Blue/yellow product is formed as it is a by-product from the catalyst.

Olefin Metathesis, proceeds by what is now known as the Chauvin Mechanism, which involves metal carbon double bonded intermediates and a metallacyclobutane species.. A metal carbon [M]=C double bond gives a type of compound, known as a alkylidene complex. The development of alkylidene (and alkylidyne [M]≡C) catalysts for metathesis reactions has been a principal research area for Prof. Schrock.

First of all, how did it feel to win the Nobel Prize & how did you celebrate?

I didn’t teach or drink during that day (until the evening), as I had an interview in the morning and a talk in the afternoon. I was scheduled to come to England later in the week for a series of talks (to Cambridge for 2 weeks) but still taught till just before leaving. I just kept going and the celebration then came when I actually received it.

How would you describe Olefin Metathesis to the non-scientist?

Olefin Metathesis is all about switching partners; one person “the catalyst” holds hands with another partner. The other pairs of people also hold hands, and then you just go around making rings and taking new partners; it’s a dance! Of course, (you don’t want it to go in equilbria) you want to give it a direction as well!

How do you think Olefin metathesis has impacted upon the wider scientific community?

Well there are commercial processes based upon Metathesis; probably the biggest one isn’t the one with the fancy catalysts but something that has been around a lot longer. It’s a 50 year old process, that’s turning ethylene and 2-butene into propylene. That’s done on billions of dollars a year scale, as we won’t have enough propylene in the future to satisfy demand.  Other processes are based upon chopping up unsaturated seed oils (isomerising them) or in the production of polymers.

Professor Richard Schrock, Nobel Prize winner 2005

Professor Richard Schrock, Nobel Prize winner 2005

Do you see the pharmaceutical industry quickly moving towards less flat structures and more 3D systems (incorporating your chemistry)?

I wish! They are very slow learners and they don’t practice new things that quickly. They’re currently worrying more about where the next paycheck is coming from, so aren’t really concerned with any new chemistry at the moment. But we think it’s inevitable for it to be used (in the right circumstances!)

When did you know you were interested in a career in science (chemistry) and how did you get into the field of Olefin Metathesis?

I got a chemistry set when I was 8 years old, and did some chemistry with it, so by the time I got to high school I knew I wanted to be a chemist. This particular field, metathesis, (I got into) probably when I was a postdoc; I made some discoveries at DuPont that led to some compounds (1972/73), which then led to more compounds which are actual catalysts for this reaction. This is something we (and others) are still working on.

What is the greatest obstacle you’ve faced in your career as a researcher?

Actually I’m still trying to overcome one of them now, which is my ‘second project’: the reduction of dinitrogen to ammonia. I was the first to demonstrate that it could be done, but we have to make it actually useful! At the moment we can do 4 turnovers, which is not great, thus It will never compete with the Haber Bosch Process (at the moment); but it will tell us a lot about manipulating protons and electrons in the same pot!

On the topic of your work on nitrogen fixation (reduction), should scientists look to nature more for inspiration?

I think we should always look for inspiration from nature; she has had a lot of time on her side!  I kind of took my inspiration from nature (for my dinitrogen work), because the (nitrogenase enzyme) contains molybdenum in a similar environment. I never thought we could do it, but we did.

People often say chemistry has created many of the world’s problems; do they thus have a bigger role in solving them?

Absolutely, you’re not going to solve them without chemistry!

Along this line, there’s a lot of talk about synthetic biology. What are your views on the interplay between synthetic chemistry and synthetic biology?

I think in the future it’s going to be chemists and biologists. Putting unnatural things into organisms to do new things. I think the biology could be more difficult (but I am a chemist) , there is a limit as you will never be able to do some reactions, such as alkene activation, with manipulation the of natural biological molecules. But Never say never, come back in 50 years!!

In the UK, there is a big shift towards applications based research. In the US, is it still okay to do science for the sake of doing science?

I think there is probably too much of that and too few politicians understand what it takes to actually discover something new. I think they’ve gone too far already; there has to be more faith in something that is unpredictable – that is chemistry!

Lastly, what advice do you have for early stage researchers looking to pursue academic careers?

I guess, find something that’s interesting to you, interesting to someone else and something you’re able to do (as you have the talent). With those 3 three things and working hard, you’ll be successful!

OBR Oxford a grateful to Professor Schrock for participating in this interview.

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