News from across RSC Publishing.
Interview: Creating a stir
20 June 2007
Ben Feringa talks to Stephen Davey about chirality, molecular recognition and farming
|Ben Feringa is the Jacobus H van't Hoff professor of molecular sciences at the University of Groningen, The Netherlands, and a member of the ChemComm editorial board. His research focuses on many aspects of stereochemistry from asymmetric synthesis to the control of self assembly, recognition and motion.|
Who inspired you to be a scientist?
Like many others, the first person to influence me was a school science teacher who was enormously encouraging. Then, at university I was taught by Hans Wynberg who was later my PhD supervisor - he inspired me to undertake the research I do now.
What is exciting in chemistry at the moment?
I think this is a golden age for the molecular sciences. Chemistry is expanding rapidly - into areas including molecular biology and materials science. Another key issue is to move from molecules to molecular systems.
There are fundamental processes associated with energy production that we need to understand. For example, we need to find out how to harness solar energy - nature does it but so far we can't mimic this in a sustainable way.
Also, I think supramolecular chemistry will provide the devices and machines of the future. Now, we are seeing the production of complex systems with lots of components working together. This is a big and fascinating challenge.
Finally, there is much work to do in the area of molecular recognition - we have only really taken the first steps. We understand simple things like hydrogen bonding, but we aren't yet able to completely design a new drug. Better understanding of molecular recognition could improve this process greatly.
What is the most exciting project you are working on?
- Ben Feringa
What is the trickiest problem you have come across in your research and how did you solve it?
For ten years, we struggled to achieve a catalytic asymmetric 1, 4-addition of a Grignard reagent. We knew deep down that it was achievable but there were many parameters to investigate - solvent, temperature, catalyst and concentration, to name a few. The smallest change had a big influence on the outcome of the reaction. Also, it was not possible to investigate each factor independently as they had a synergistic effect. Finally, to achieve this kind of goal, which we did four years ago, what you need is dedication and at least some good luck.
If you went back into the lab, what project would you work on?
I would love to have the time to go back in the lab. If I did, the project I would like to work on would be using one of our motor molecules to move something physically. I would like to use a molecule to move an object on a surface in a controlled way.
You worked for Shell before returning to academia. Does this give you a unique perspective on research?
I think the research environment in academia is protected, which is great for new ideas, but working for a multinational company like Shell is eye-opening. In industry, the pressures are different - time and money are of the utmost importance. I often use this in discussions with my students as I want them to think about problems in the right way. For example, what may seem like a fairly unimportant solubility problem in the university lab may be one that costs millions of dollars a day in the oil industry. I think industry and academia complement each other. Developing a new reaction takes time and effort and this is best done in academia because you have the freedom to investigate a problem that you just find interesting. In industry, there is always a defined goal and usually severe time limits.
What piece of lab equipment would you most like to be?
- Ben Feringa
If you weren't a scientist, what would you be?
A farmer. I grew up on a farm and I still have some land where we have a horse and I grow my own vegetables. I love to see nature at work - it is a massive inspiration in my research. I like to think of our research as chemistry flowering; adding new functions and at every stage there are new questions. For instance, what do macro-world things like friction and torque really mean at the molecular level? The answer is we don't know. We aren't even close to achieving the same level of complexity as nature, let alone beating it.
Ben Feringa's homepage
at The University of Groningen
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An astrophysically-relevant mechanism for amino acid enantiomer enrichment
Stephen P. Fletcher, Richard B. C. Jagt and Ben L. Feringa, Chem. Commun., 2007, 2578
The isolation and photochemistry of individual atropisomers of photochromic diarylethenes
Martin Walko and Ben L. Feringa, Chem. Commun., 2007, 1745
Three-state photochromic switching in a silyl bridged diarylethene dimer
Jetsuda Areephong, Wesley R. Browne and Ben L. Feringa, Org. Biomol. Chem., 2007, 5, 1170