Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The 2011 Organometallics Roundtable – Peering into the Future

(Note: I’m publishing this post concurrently with my blog bud Chemjobber. Hop on over to his site to read about the industry / academia training and #chemjobs angles. This way, regular readers get twice the opinions for half the price!)

Who wants to chat?
Source: Texas A&M U.
As 2011 drew to a close, John Gladysz, the new Chief Editor of Organometallics, sat down for a chat with seventeen organometallic chemists from different national (German, Swiss, Australian, US, Chinese, British) and employment backgrounds (14 academia, 2 industrial, 1 government). The result?  An in-depth discussion, full of banter and back-talk, which covers topics such as industrial training for grad students, national creativity differences, “dream reactions,” and how to encourage industrial cross-collaboration.

As an icebreaker, Gladysz had each chemist dream up their “Christmas Stocking Reaction,” the ultimate goal each would love to see realized. Here’s a quick rundown:

-      Pragmatism –Joachim Ritter (DuPont) envisioned several scenarios for taking non-petroleum-derived feedstocks on to commodity chemicals. Ritter’s focus on hydroxymethyl-furfural (HMF, a darling of ChemEng labs across the country) was perhaps unsurprising, but I enjoyed his new ideas for deoxygenation of vegetable oils to produce fine chemicals. Jerzy Klosin (Dow) chimed in for development of newer, cheaper catalytic complexes, especially championing first-row analogues for replacement of palladium in polymerizations. Bernhard Rieger (Technische U. Munschen) weighed in on incorporation of CO2 into polymers with nickel catalysts.

-     Break the Glove Boxes! – Jim Mayer (U. Washington) and Bill Jones (U. Rochester), building off of Ritter’s theoretical deoxygenation catalysts, proposed chemistry based on high-oxidation-state metals. Mark Humphrey (Australia National) wished for an air-insensitive route to Sonogoshira-type couplings of alkynyl dendrimers. Jennifer Schomaker (U. Wisc.-Madison) hoped to use nitrous oxide as a terminal oxidant, and Vy Dong (U. of Toronto) would like chiral ligands for high-valent Pd chemistry.

P-N-N pincers and Pd oxidation,
Z-metathesis and dehydrogenation,
Iridium cat'lysts that stitch up new rings
These are a few of their favorite things...
-      Crank up the Heat – Tobin Marks (Northwestern U.) wanted to see more ligand classes (think pincers and porphyrins) capable of supporting homogeneous catalysis at higher temperatures.

-      Mind your MOFs – Still others, such as Zach Ball (Rice U.) and Ekkehardt Hahn (Westfalische Wilhelms-Universitat Munster) weighed in on new types of building blocks and metals for cluster and MOF chemistry. Vivian Yam (U. of Hong Kong) wrapped up everyone’s requests with a nice bow; she hoped for new air- and moisture-insensitive OLED materials, solar energy-collecting polymers, and water-splitting photocatalysts.

Filling the “Tool Box” - Rieger cautioned to watch out for the recurring industrial opinion that “all the useful chemistry is already discovered.” Gladysz used the example of frustrated Lewis pairs, which, while a fairly young concept, are already turning heads. Bill Jones gave an impromptu one-liner about heterolytic hydrogenation: “If someone had written that on an exam…you’d give them a zero (back in the old days).” Humphrey chimed in on bimetallic bases, and Klosin for Ziegler-Natta studies.

But just then, Ritter poured cold water on the party: “Today’s chemical companies are busy reacting to rapid market swings and trends, which does not leave a lot of room for risky long-term projects.” Sensing, perhaps, that he’d deflated the roundtable’s enthusiasm, he quickly backtracked and mentioned that he’s “looking forward to…CO2 utilization, solar energy, and biomass based energy and chemicals.”

So there you go, future faculty members, he’s written half your proposal already!

Throwaway lines – CJ has collected quite a few of these, but I’d like to comment on a few more.

 “I’ve talked to a colleague in China whose professor advised ‘If you don’t do palladium chemistry, how will people know you are my student?’.” –Vy Dong

Peering into the OM "xstal ball "
Source: Organometallics
This issue seems to rankle most with the faculty, who toe the fine line between capitalizing on their past successes and striking out with their own programs. Suzanne Blum (UC-Irvine) cautioned against what she calls “n+1 research,” clinging to well-trodden paths while writing funding proposals. But Yam and Humphrey pointed out that initial funding in their home countries (China, Australia) can be tough unless you stick to the script.

This creativity discussion wound through the group, until Yam and Hahn debated whether Indian and Chinese universities still seemed to hire based on quantity (i.e. papers published) vs. quality.

Hahn: “…even the 28-year old researchers from China know their h-indexes [and] introduce themselves saying their name and ‘I have an h-index of 10.’ And you wonder who has trained them?”

I can’t say that I’ve never encountered the "publish or die" sentiment, but I had hoped it was becoming less prevalent with time. Readers, your thoughts?

The Last Word - …in my opinion, the chemical community performs poorly in transmitting to the general public what they are actually doing.” –Ekke relays a sobering thought for those of us in the blogosphere who toil daily to demystify our science.

Maybe he doesn’t read enough good science blogs?


  1. I really like the focus on getting chemistry out of the glovebox. Also really appreciate the comment about all the unformed ideas that could be turned into grant proposals.

    BTW, where should I start reading to understand MOFs?

  2. I'm told all MOFs start and end with Yaghi....(joke)

    But seriously, there was a Chem Rev issue (2?) that dealt entirely with MOFs. Here's one of 'em: http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/cr200304e

  3. This is a smart blog. I mean it. You have so much knowledge about this issue, and so much passion. You also know how to make people rally behind it, obviously from the responses. Youve got a design here thats not too flashy, but makes a statement as big as what youre saying. Great job, indeed.