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Interview: From father to sun
22 March 2010
Robin Perutz talks to Marie Cote about solar energy, ecological awareness and how science runs in the family.
Robin Perutz is a professor of chemistry at the University of York, UK. His research interests span organometallics and their photochemistry, small molecule activation, catalysis and solar fuels, with a special emphasis on deciphering the mechanisms of reactions that underlie all processes, via an array of spectroscopic techniques and active collaborations with computational chemists.
What inspired you to become a scientist?
From my earliest stages my father, Max [a molecular biologist], talked to me about his science - non-stop! He also took me into his lab sometimes to show me what he did and he would explain the molecular models of DNA and proteins. Later he found tasks for me to do in the lab. We went on long walks together and he would tell me about the people he met as well and his excitement about what other people were doing in molecular biology.
His own topic of research was the structure and mode of action of haemoglobin. When I was beginning as a research student he became interested in the spectroscopy of haemoglobin and this gave us a common theme to talk about. Sometimes the roles reversed and I told him about spectroscopic methods, what they could do and how you could interpret them.
What led your interests towards organometallics and catalysis?
I started metal carbonyl chemistry as a research student because I was very interested in what Jim Turner, who became my PhD supervisor, was doing on reactive intermediates. As I moved on, I learned new techniques and gradually expanded my interests to include synthesis and catalysis. The mechanisms of reactions have always been a key interest of mine as I have always wanted to do research quantitatively not only qualitatively.
One of your key research projects is on solar fuels. Could you tell us more about this area?
Solar energy can be used in three fundamentally different ways. Solar thermal energy generates heat. Solar electricity generates electric power and solar fuels generate chemical energy. A perfect example of a natural system that works with solar fuels are leaves. They absorb solar energy and generate carbohydrates and oxygen. If we could convert solar energy into chemical energy efficiently in an artificial way we could overcome many problems of energy use and climate change that result from excessive CO2. So much energy from the sun falls onto the Earth's surface that we would be able to power all mankind.
For this research theme you are part of SolarCAP. Can you explain what SolarCAP is?
SolarCAP is a consortium composed of five research groups in four different universities in the UK exploring novel ways of harnessing visible light energy to produce fuels. Because the problem of solar energy conversion is complicated we have set ourselves different tasks in this goal, and I am involved principally in the CO2 reduction task. The aim being to convert CO2 into useful chemicals, including carbon monoxide, formic acid and methanol. To do this it is necessary to reduce CO2 and oxidize something else. At present we aim to oxidize alkanes. SolarCAP brings together different components and expertise, and we meet at least every 6 months in order to exchange ideas and discuss how we are progressing.
In your opinion, what role will chemistry play in solving the energy crisis?
Most of the solutions to the energy crisis, are going to involve chemistry together with other sciences. It is truly an interdisciplinary challenge. Where chemistry comes in will depend on the solutions: it could be to make materials for solar electricity or to devise the catalyst that you are going to need for solar fuels. There are many different possibilities but chemistry will be needed in some way or another for sure.
What is the best thing about your job?
The people are very important to me. The best thing is seeing research students develop into independent scientists and feeling that you have done something to make a difference. Also, I have a fantastic set of colleagues and collaborators that I've met, which has allowed me to become close friends with people in several different countries. I think this is a huge benefit for scientists and gives an edge over many other professions. People do not think of science as a people job, but in fact you have the benefit of working with young people throughout your career and you have the international aspect too.
Of course the other thing that I love is to be able to get the results, to try and solve the problem and feel that you have made a difference in solving a difficult scientific problem.
If you had one piece of advice to give to young scientists, what would it be?
I would say look around at what other scientists do, and see if their way of working is one that you would enjoy doing yourself and could make a success of. There are many ways of doing good science and being prescriptive is the last thing that is appropriate. But take your pick, find a good problem, and see how other people approach difficult problems.
What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
I do a lot of walking, particularly in mountains if I can. I go bird watching and try to be as aware as possible of the natural world around me. These are the things I really enjoy doing. If I wasn't a chemist, I would work in ecological conservation.
Robin Perutz's homepage
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Synthesis and structure of 16-electron rhodium(III) catalysts for transfer hydrogenation of a cyclic imine: mechanistic implications
A. John Blacker, Eric Clot, Simon B. Duckett, Odile Eisenstein, Jake Grace, Ainara Nova, Robin N. Perutz, David J. Taylor and Adrian C. Whitwood, Chem. Commun., 2009, 6801
Synthesis, reactivity and molecular structure of phosphino tetramethyl cyclopentadienyl complex (5: 1-C5Me4CH2PPh2)Re(CO)2
Fernando Godoy, A. Hugo Klahn, Beatriz Oelckers, María Teresa Garland, Andres Ibáñez and Robin N. Perutz, Dalton Trans., 2009, 3044
A systematic approach to the generation of long-lived metal alkane complexes: combined IR and NMR study of (Tp)Re(CO)2(cyclopentane)
Simon B. Duckett, Michael W. George, Omar S. Jina, Steven L. Matthews, Robin N. Perutz, Xue-Zhong Sun and Khuong Q. Vuong, Chem. Commun., 2009, 1401
Also of interest
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US researchers achieve stable, long-lived sigma-methane complex without breaking the C-H bonds