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Q/A with Nobel Laureate Robert H. Grubbs

Robert H. Grubbs' current projects are focused on how to reduce environmental impacts in industry. (GAVIN STERN /  THE STATESMAN)
Robert H. Grubbs’ current projects are focused on how to reduce environmental impacts in industry. (GAVIN STERN / THE STATESMAN)

Robert H. Grubbs, winner of the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 2005 and chemist at California Institute of Technology, came to SBU to present the Distinguished Lecture Series in Science and Engineering, “Catalysis: Green Chemicals and Materials” on Feb. 15, 2013.

Q: Dr. Grubbs, your 2005 Nobel Prize was for a breakthrough in producing synthetic materials, and your lecture today is on green chemistry. But it’s unusual to see ‘synthetic’ and ‘green’ in the same sentence. How do you make a totally synthetic material work well in the environment?

A: You’re trying to make things as environmentally friendly as possible. If we didn’t need any materials we would use wood, but we’re not happy with that so we have to make things. The whole point of green chemistry is to accomplish your goal in the most sustainable way possible.

Q: Is the goal to make these materials able to be broken down by nature?

A: There are all kinds of pieces. There’s the part that when you make stuff, you want to make it as efficiently as possible. You want to make it from sustainable starting materials. You don’t want to make a lot of byproducts when you’re making it. And in the end you want it to be a safe product that you’ve made that can either be broken down or somehow of use to the environment.

Q: You touched on this a bit, but many synthetic chemical pathways currently require rare earth metal catalysts and hazardous solvents. What industrial potential is there for the green alternatives, such as super-critical CO2?

A: There are all kinds of ways of using processes that don’t require solvents, processes that require fewer steps. Supercritical CO2 – there’s all kinds of ways of doing it. People have done studies that show people won’t buy things just because it’s green. It has to be the same price and be just as good. That’s the challenge.

Q: I have noticed a movement towards natural substances, like organic food. Why do people fear chemical processes that are entirely man-made? How do you get past that fear?

A: We’ve got to live. For example, we control pests, otherwise we don’t have food to eat.  The basic strategy is how do you control pests without creating pollution. In each area it’s the same kind of thing –  we have goals to accomplish and we just need to find new ways of doing it.

Q: 20 years from now do you see us using more synthetic materials? Will we recognize what our ‘stuff’ is made of?

A: The population is growing, we’re going to have great demands on our supplies, but we also have to learn how to control CO2 and all the other kinds of things. I think it’s going to be a combination of getting much more efficient processes but also doing it in a way that is more sustainable. That’s the challenge for chemists and all of science.

Q: We have a lot of chemistry students at Stony Brook. What do you want to see them working on when they get into the field?

A: There’s an amazing number of new problems, because we’re going to have to change our starting materials. We have to have new chemistry to be able to use those new starting materials. It’s a really challenging time, which means it’s a great time to be a chemist because there are such huge problems to solve.

Q: What are some of those huge problems that you want to see a breakthrough in?

A: For example, right now most of our starting materials come from petroleum, which is mostly just carbon and hydrogen. Most of the products we use also have oxygen and nitrogen. The chemistry that’s being developed is to put those units in. If you start from bio sources, they usually have too much oxygen and too much nitrogen. The chemistry is the reverse – how do you take it out. There are lots of new processes that you can develop.

There are a tremendous number of exciting problems to work on. I just talked to people here at Stony Brook who are working on ways of purifying water. Water is going to be our very precious resource. There are just many, many problems to solve.

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