The Materials for Industry - Derek Birchall Award rewarded an individual for creativity and excellence in the application of materials chemistry in industry.
This award was discontinued in 2020, as part of a series of changes introduced following an independent review of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s recognition programmes.
Derek Birchall OBE FRS was one of very few Fellows of the Royal Society who did not have a degree. Instead he started work as an industrial laboratory assistant at the age of 14 where he progressed to carry out chemical analysis. His fascination with the phenomena of fire and his work on activated carbon and flame at the age of 17 led him naturally to employment at John Kerr & co., manufacturers of the first gas-fired porcelain furnaces. During this time he attended night school to gain a HNC in Chemistry and gained recognition as the best student in his year.
At the age of 19 he applied for his first patent, 'a physical improvement to fire extinguishers'. He applied for his last, 'a cold sore remedy', in 1994 shortly before his untimely death at the age of 65 in 1995. There were more than 100 patents in between including; for Monnex, a fire-extinguishing powder; for Saffil, a high strength, highly thermal resistant alumina fibre (this won the Queens Award for Technological Achievement in 1978 and was used in the heat resistant tiles on the Space Shuttle); and those pertaining to many new inorganic materials such as 'smart' cements and ceramics.
Derek Birchall also believed in fundamental science and published more than 100 papers in leading academic journals. Latterly he helped to found the discipline now known as bioinorganic chemistry and in particular he demonstrated how we could learn from nature to develop both new materials and novel applications for existing materials.
In addition to being a polymath, one of his great strengths was to successfully translate academic research into materials with myriad industrial applications, many of which remain widely used to this day.