Professor Charlotte Williams MRSC
Winner: 2021 Tilden Prize
University of Oxford
For contributions to sustainable polymer chemistry.
Celebrate Professor Charlotte Williams
Professor Williams' research interests include metal complexes as homogeneous catalysts to make polymers, fuels and materials. Her motivation is discovering ways to use and recycle renewable resources, such as plants or carbon dioxide, to make useful products such as polymers.
In the area of inorganic chemistry, her group's research includes the preparation of new metal complexes, their use in homogeneous catalysis, uses of in situ spectroscopy for catalyst characterisation and analysis of the reaction kinetics. Recently discovered catalysts include complexes of transition metals, lanthanides and main group elements.
Her group is also involved in polymer preparation, the exploration of materials' properties and the assessment of future applications. They are particularly interested in new oxygenated polymers, such as polyesters/carbonates, and in developing methods to prepare, reuse and recycle polymers as products from bio-refining, industrial wastes and biomass so as to improve sustainability. In collaboration with other research groups worldwide, the new polymers have been evaluated for applications including as rigid plastics, elastomers, coatings, adhesives, fibre-reinforced composites, matrices for tissue engineering, antimicrobial surfaces and as self-assembled nanostructures in controlled release.Read winner biography
Charlotte K Williams is Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Associate Head of Department of Chemistry (Research) at the University of Oxford. She is also an EPSRC Established Career Research Fellow. She heads up a research group that investigates polymerisation catalysis and polymer chemistry with a particular focus on improving polymer sustainability. Recent research topics include low pressure carbon dioxide copolymerisation catalysts, switchable polymerisation catalysts enabling block sequence-controlled polymer production from monomer mixtures and making new oxygenated thermoplastic elastomers, plastics and pressure sensitive adhesives to maximise renewable resource content and facilitate recycling and/or degradation after use.
In 2020, Professor Williams chaired the Chemical Sciences in Society Summit, convening experts from China, Germany, Japan and the UK to produce a white paper: Science to Enable Sustainable Plastics. From 2003–2016, Williams was a faculty member in the chemistry department at Imperial College London. Earlier in her career, she was a postdoctoral researcher at Cambridge University (2002–2003), working with Andrew Holmes and Richard Friend, and at the University of Minnesota (2001–2002), working with Bill Tolman and Marc Hillmyer. She obtained her BSc and PhD from Imperial College London, the latter supervised by Vernon Gibson and Nick Long on ethene polymerisation catalysis.
Charlotte's work has recently been recognised with an OBE for Services to Chemistry (2020), the Macro Group UK Medal (2019), the DeChema Otto Roelen Catalysis Medal (2018), the UK Catalysis Hub Sir John Meurig Thomas Medal (2017), the Royal Society of Chemistry Corday-Morgan Medal (2016) and the Women in Science and Engineering Tech Start-Up Award (2015).
What motivates you?
Problem solving, working in teams, experimental science, working to make a difference in the world and training early career researchers. My bigger dream and motivation is to understand the science underpinning pollution and to try to design better polymers for the future.
What advice would you give to a young person considering a career in chemistry?
Chemistry is the right choice for anyone motivated to solve environmental problems because it delivers the scientific tools to properly understand the issues and the ability to make change and deliver solutions at an appropriate scale. Chemists innovate and invent across the length-scales from the atomic, through the nanoscale up to the level of designing and understanding the physical objects and materials in our world. It’s a science that is both intellectually fascinating and satisfies the desire to make a difference and deliver real change. Chemists make things and are very pragmatic and solution focused – it’s a truly inspiring science and with the whole periodic table to experiment with you can never be bored.
Why do you think teamwork is important in science?
Teamwork is essential because most important problems are too large, difficult and complex for one person to fully understand, let alone solve. By working together, particularly across areas of different expertise, we can truly break new ground as well as arriving at solutions much quicker than by working in isolation. Chemistry is a very sociable science and most of our working day is spent working together in the laboratory and discussing our findings with collaborators across the world. Chemistry’s tremendous application potential also means that we work across and throughout business supply chains.
What is your favourite element?
My favourite element is magnesium, which is a key catalyst in carbon dioxide transformations, like heterocycle/carbon dioxide copolymerisation, as well as being integral to nature’s carbon dioxide fixing enzyme Rubisco. Its coordination chemistry is underappreciated, but it can be a useful and cooperative partner with transition metals.