Until he was nine, Richard Barrer studied with his mother on an isolated farm in New Zealand; his research led to the founding of zeolite chemistry.
A long and treacherous road through the New Zealand hills would have been the only way to reach the Barrer family on their 4000 acre farm. Until the age of nine, Richard lived 30 miles away from the nearest town of Masterton. The vast distances between neighbours, and the unpredictability of the roads, meant that Barrer and his siblings were home-schooled for the first stage of their education.
After moving to Masterton, Richard was in the first ever class in his new high school, and was able to study maths, physics, chemistry, English, French and Latin up to sixth-form, where English was his favourite subject. He then attended Canterbury University before obtaining an 1851 Exhibition Scholarship in 1932, allowing him to study at the University of Cambridge for his PhD.
At Cambridge, he joined the colloid laboratory, where he worked until 1948, when he moved to establish a research school in Aberdeen. In 1954, he moved again to Imperial College London where he remained for the rest of his career.
As well as research skills, Richard also brought athletic ability with him on his move to the UK. Cross-country running, perhaps from early experiences living on that vast farm, was something he excelled at, earning him a “full blue” for athletics.
Richard is credited with establishing the field of zeolite research and its applications in industry. Today, an estimated 350 000 tons of zeolites are used per year as catalysts.
The British Zeolite Association explains that “Zeolites are microporous crystalline solids with well-defined structures. Generally they contain silicon, aluminium and oxygen in their framework and cations, water and/or other molecules within their pores. Many occur naturally as minerals, and are extensively mined in many parts of the world”.
Playing the role of nature, one of Richard ’s achievements was learning to make crystalline aluminosilicates – he successfully made equivalents of some naturally occurring zeolites, felspthoids, feldspars and micas, as well as others that were new to the lab. Later, he developed a synthesis programme with the Union Carbide Corporation, and 1957 saw the building of the first manufacturing plant using zeolite catalysts.
In addition to his extensive work on zeolites, Richard published dozens of papers in very different fields, including polymer membranes and molecular transport in microporous media.
Honorary degrees from the universities of Bradford and Aberdeen, and a special issue of the Journal of Membrane Science in 1983, dedicated to Richard, recognised his contributions to chemistry. His learned society affiliations included membership of the councils of both the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Society of Chemical Industry, and honorary president of the International Zeolite Association.
As a fellow of the Royal Society, a memoir of Richard has been published by the society and contains comments from those who knew him. It paints a picture of a shy man, who greatly disliked meetings and small talk in his professional life, but found time to talk to all the members of his research group.
First awarded in 1983, the Barrer Prize pays tribute to the memory of Richard Maling Barrer (1910-1996), the founding father of zeolite chemistry. The award, created after the 1979 zeolites conference, is administered by the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Society for Chemical Industry and the British Zeolite Association.
Words by Charlotte Still, Elizabeth McLoughlin and Jenifer Mizen
Image © Royal Society of Chemistry Library Archives
Published June 2014