The 2017 Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize goes to professor Susumu Kitagawa, from Kyoto University. His development of nanoporous materials could lead to new ways of capturing, storing and releasing gases.

Think of a cage whose bars are so small you could lock gas molecules in it. That, in essence, is what “Metal Organic Frameworks” (MOFs) are. They combine metallic knots and organic ligands that hold them together. By combining different types of metals and ligands, the size and shapes of the pores can be controlled, which means MOFs can be used to capture or release gases at a molecular scale.

The benefits of capturing gas

The potential applications are very wide, but certain fields are already quite promising, such as gas storage (typically for methane, hydrogen or CO2), gas separation (which would be useful in the field of air quality, for capturing harmful molecules for example), gas transformation – using the catalytic properties of MOFs – but also for making high sensitivity gas sensors. Broadly speaking, MOFs could contribute to improving the state of our planet. “Capturing and re-using gases in these ‘cages’ could help develop clean technologies to tackle climate change and open up new possibilities in energy storage,” says Jean-Pierre Clamadieu, CEO of Solvay.

Of course, there are still hurdles to overcome before large-scale production can be envisaged, the main one being cost. But as Professor Kitagawa explains, there’s nothing new about that. “If you look at the history of many materials, at the beginning, cost is the main issue. And then they start being widely used and their cost diminishes very easily; so I don’t believe cost is a real problem.”

Dreaming even further

Speaking with the wisdom of perspective, Professor Susumu Kitagawa is a pioneer in the field of porous coordination polymers. He is Deputy Director-General, Distinguished Professor and Director of the Institute for Integral Cell-Material Sciences at the recently created Kyoto University Institute for Advanced Studies (KUIAS).

Needless to say, creating MOFs is the fruit of a lengthy process. Professor Kitagawa has been working on metal compounds for decades. “I started working on this subject by working with copper in 1979, he explains. But copper didn’t work out so well, so I went on to trying various metal ions and published my first results about metal organic binding energy, or metal ligands, in 1997.” As he indicates, the combination of organic and inorganic elements is out of the ordinary in itself: “MOFs contain both metal ions and organic molecules, so in a way, they contain everything. They are a kind of state-of-the-art interaction system.”

But, time permitting, he doesn’t intend to end his research there. He actually has a long-standing, very ambitious idea: “My big dream is to synthesize very important chemicals such as amino acids directly from an ubiquitous element: air. When you think of it, all the elements are right there: oxygen, carbon, nitrogen, but also hydrogen in the moisture. I’m not sure I will actually be able to achieve that, but I can encourage young researchers in this direction.”

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Laying a foundation for the future


This makes it pretty clear that awarding the Solvay Prize to Professor Kitagawa fits perfectly with its vocation to “foster human progress”, as established when it was created in 2013. Since then, every two years, a €300,000 prize aims to distinguish a major scientific discovery that “lays the foundation for the Chemistry for  the Future”. It was first awarded to Professor Peter G. Schultz of the Scripps Research Institute in California, and in 2015 to Professor Ben Feringa, of the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2016.
 
The 2017 ceremony for the Chemistry for the Future Solvay Prize took place in Brussels on 22 November, in the presence of His Majesty King Philippe of Belgians. The laureate is chosen by an independent jury of renowned researchers in the field of chemistry, including a couple of Nobel Prize winners.

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