Come for the laughs, stay for the chemistry.
“It’s good to be here—thanks for the weather,” Robert H. Grubbs, Nobel laureate in chemistry, said.
More than 100 days after Superstorm Sandy forced a postponement, Grubbs finally presented the Distinguished Lecture in Science & Engineering, “Catalysis: Green Chemicals and Materials” on Feb. 15, 2013.
‘Green chemistry’ is accomplished either by reducing hazardous byproducts or making a product that is more easily broken down by nature.
Students spilled out into the aisles of the Charles B. Wang Center theater for the chance to hear a living legend of synthetic organic chemistry.
Grubbs played the awestruck audience with humble, self-deprecating humor as he led them through a tangle of chemical reactions with his green laser pointer.
“I didn’t really realize I was a ‘green chemist’ until the Nobel committee said I was,” Grubbs said.
Grubbs, the father of Stony Brook University associate professor Robert B. Grubbs, is the Atkins Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology. He received the Nobel Prize in 2005 along with Richard R. Schrock and Yves Chauvin for devising a catalyst that would speed up “olefin metathesis.”
Grubbs’ work in metathesis revolutionized the production of manmade materials, and the chemical transformations that are now standard in industry—even for companies like Victoria’s Secret.
“One of the highlights of my chemical career,” Grubbs said.
Currently, Grubbs is working on the materials and the chemistry needed to reduce industry’s impact on the environment.
Grubbs’ green chemical processes allow for the production of bio-renewable fuels for cars and jets, crystals that reflect solar radiation, superlight materials for windmills and pheromones that replace harmful pesticides to kill insects.
Making these materials cost effective, however, is a challenge. Grubbs said consumers do not buy green products unless cost and effectiveness are similar to the products they replace.
Grubbs dedicated the final portion of his lecture to the young scientists from all over the globe who work in his laboratory.
“These are the people who are really responsible for everything,” Grubbs said, as he displayed a group photo and introduced each researcher by name. “These are the ones who make it happen.”
Students who attended the lecture said Grubbs succeeded not only in teaching a complicated subject, but also in making the experience itself riveting.
“Dr. Grubbs was absolutely phenomenal. Really over the top,” chemical engineering major Neil Edmands said. “I felt happy to understand at least some of what he was talking about.”
Taurean Dyer, 27, a graduate student from Trinidad studying mechanical engineering at Stony Brook, said he was impressed with Grubbs’ pheromone technology that stops mosquitos from reproducing.
“If he can get that working, that will be a huge boon to the Caribbean and Africa, where dengue is a major cause of death,” Dyer said. “And if we can start making biodiesels at the level Grubbs was talking about, we might hit some big strides, hopefully, in the next 10 years.”