What made me curious? Professor Graham Hutchings
Professor Graham Hutchings is one of the world’s pre-eminent authorities on catalysis, and was recently appointed Regius Professor of Chemistry. He spoke to Dr Peter Johnston, Scientific Consultant at Johnson Matthey, about his life of science.
PJ: What sparked your passion for chemistry?
GH: I wanted to be a chemist from the age of 11. I saw my first experiment - the distillation of water, a purple solution that was being boiled over into a colourless liquid. I was mesmerised by it. I told my parents I wanted a chemistry set and saved up my pocket money, and eventually got the apparatus. I put the apparatus together and it wobbled, but the teacher’s apparatus didn’t wobble, so I put a cork in it. I’d created a closed system which I heated up, and it blew up. It was one of those moments where you just say “this is what I want to do”.
PJ: You did a PhD in biological chemistry at UCL but your career has been in catalysis. Why did you make the switch?
GH: In the late 1960s and early 70s there was a lot of new science coming out in the biological arena. I saw biological chemistry as the subject to be involved with. Although I was offered jobs in the Scientific Civil Service I finally accepted a job at ICI on Teesside. They recruited me as a biological chemist but they decided to change projects just before I arrived. I turned up on Teesside and they didn’t really know what they wanted me to do, so they told me to look at some papers. All the papers were on vanadium phosphate for butane oxidation so at that moment I became a heterogeneous catalysis person.
PJ: What prompted the move into academia?
GH: I decided I would rather be an academic and be in charge of my own destiny than have industrial problems given to me which I would solve partially, and they would be happy with the partial solution; but I was never happy with these partial solutions and wanted to work more on them to obtain a complete answer.
My whole raison d’etre is doing experiments and finding out something new that no one has found out before. That’s what fascinates me and is the driving force.
PJ: Did you find your time in industry rewarding or valuable as a stepping stone?
GH: Very much so. When I became an academic I had so many ideas to work on. I think there’s a way of working in industry which opens up areas most people don’t look at. For one thing, as an industrialist, you look at patent literature far more closely than we do as academics. Had I become an academic by the standard route I don’t think I would have made the discoveries I have made. Having an industrial background makes you think about things in a slightly different way.
I’m always mindful of a simple question: Can this be applied, can this discovery be used in any way? Pasteur said, “There’s only applied science and science yet to be applied”. Working in industry, you see that first hand. Pure academic research is fantastic, but eventually it will find application.
PJ: Do you think now that research is done in a much more collaborative way, or is it still down to individual ideas?
GH: There is a place for the individual to work on a difficult problem but if you really want to solve the problem you need to collaborate with people with different expertise. You need to combine theory, material science and characterisation, in situ spectroscopy for example, and no one laboratory or scientist has all that expertise.
PJ: In catalysis, what do you see as the future challenges?
GH: That’s a very good question Peter. I’ve already set out some of the key challenges that have been here for 100 years are yet to be solved.
Precious metals are used as catalysts and they are a non-sustainable resource unless we can use them more efficiently. It would be really neat if we could use earth-abundant metals to do the reactions. We have to look to biology which tends to use copper, iron, magnesium, and manganese.
If I was younger I’d love to bring what we know about biological and enzymic catalysis into play with what I know now about heterogeneous catalysis. I think with the interplay between these two we’d be able to solve these problems. If you came back in 50 years’ time, I’d be very surprised if were still using precious metals and would hope we’d transformed into using earth-abundant metals.
PJ: What are your plans for future research?
GH: Cardiff University has been very good for catalysis. It’s recognised catalysis as an essential science of the future, enabling us to access into areas where traditionally it has not been applied, such as water purification and cleaning applications. Moving Cardiff Catalysis Institute into the Translational Research Facility (one of four new buildings on the University's £300m Innovation Campus) is a great opportunity.
While buildings don’t do research, it’s the people in them and the opportunities that will come from that move that will inspire our young researchers to take on these new challenges. I hope the legacy of my involvement will be vibrant with young researchers working across a wide area of catalysis.
Read the full interview
This is a shortened version of the full interview that features in the Winter 2016 issue of Challenge Cardiff, our research magazine.