Richard Schrock (1945, Indiana, US), Nobel Laureate in Chemistry 2005, visited the Tarragona chemical cluster recently and met with leading companies from one of Europe’s largest chemical hubs, such as Dow, BASF and Repsol.
Prof. Schrock’s visit was promoted by Tecniospring, Catalonia Trade & Investment talent programme, which aims to bring top researchers to Catalonia from all over the world. One of the funded projects, being developed at the research group AMIC at the University Rovira i Virgili (Tarragona), involves the use of catalysts Prof. Schrock discovered.
You discovered organometallic compounds that effectively facilitate olefin metathesis, a type of chemical reaction. What are the applications of this technology?
It is applied in the transformation of olefins, organic molecules with carbon-carbon double bonds. These molecules are very common, so the applications are very broad. It can be used to prepare polymers, fragrances, flavors, pheromones…
Importantly, many biorenewables also contain carbon-carbon double bonds, so the technology does not depend on petroleum. We are making astounding new polymers with certain properties using catalysts engineered to make them.
It can also be used in pharmaceuticals. All diseases practically are dependent on small molecules and what they do in the body. So, we could make some molecules that act as a drug for treating Alzheimer’s, for instance.
What will be the impact in the long run?
People still don't realize how biorenewables is a big thing. It's nature's chemicals! I think it is going to have a huge impact particularly in pharmaceuticals, but in organic chemistry in general.
If you can make organic molecules more simply and catalytically, you will not be making any waste. It's a very environmentally-friendly catalytic reaction that is the way to go today.
What is your opinion about the chemical cluster in Tarragona?
I think it's a highly concentrated and very competitive cluster. I came here at the invitation of University Rovira i Virgili, and I am hoping to convince the companies that we have reactions that they could make use of, because the companies in the chemical cluster do lots of reactions with carbon-carbon double bonds, such as ethylene, propylene, butene, and so on. And they were generally interested.
Do you see possible ways of collaborating with the cluster?
Maybe in the future, yes! All these things take time. We would like to collaborate helping them solve the problems they might have in this type of chemistry.
What do you like most about chemistry?
Chemistry explains everything around us: gas, liquid, solid. If you can learn and use those properties and discover how to make things that are stronger, lighter, and more useful, that's all good. I like puzzles, so I enjoy a scientific puzzle. And ultimately, I enjoy the next discovery, whatever that might be.
What does it take to win a Nobel Prize?
It takes an original discovery. Surprises are given for life's work and Nobel Prizes are given for discoveries that have changed the way people do chemistry forever.
How did it change your life?
It is a very select group of Nobel Prize winners. There are maybe 170 alive now. Everybody wants to have a Nobel Laureate to come to their conference, so I get a lot of invitations, but I can't accept them. But it's just the recognition: everybody knows about a Nobel Prize. Everywhere I go in the world, people revere a Nobel Prize. It was the first scientific prize I think to be given. But it didn't change what I did professionally very much.
Doing research requires a lot of innovation, and the willingness of always trying new things and ideas. How do you do that? How do you innovate?
Imagination is one of the main things in terms of scientific research. Albert Einstein said, “The most important thing about intelligence is imagination”. And he had a tremendous imagination. And look what happened to him: he also got a Nobel Prize!
You can't do that every day, but you do make discoveries that you find satisfying and that really push back the frontiers of what you’re doing. And you can publish it and then it's there forever!
After winning a Nobel Prize, are there any other life challenges that you want to accomplish?
I want to be a spokesman for science more, try to convince people like the president of my country that climate change is a real problem. We may already be beyond the point of stopping it, but he knows nothing about science. I don't know if I can change his mind, but I hope I can contribute to the general change writing articles and giving talks.