“The possibilities of science are infinite” – an interview with nobel laureate Ryoji Noyori

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Ryoji Noyori
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The chemist Ryoji Noyori, born 1938, is the President of the japanese research organisation RIKEN. In 2001 he received the Nobel Prize in chemistry for his contributions to asymmetric hydrogenation reactions. Noyori is a prominent supporter of the idea that advancing science and developing new technologies is the only way out of the man-made crises of the 21st century. After his lecture at this year’s Nobel Laureate Meeting in Lindau I had the opportunity to talk to him about catalysis, the scientist’s role in society and the meaning of chemistry for the survival of mankind.

In your lecture abstract you wrote: “Our science is creative and productive, generating substances of very high value from almost nothing.“ In most cases, this “almost nothing” are base chemicals extracted from crude petroleum, which is finite and will become more and more expensive. Where will our base chemicals come from in the future?

Oil is only finite if we unwisely use it as energy source. I think burning oil is entirely ridiculous. Oil should be used as a chemical or material resource instead of an energy resource. So if you could replace oil by solar energy or another renewable energy source, oil will long remain an abundant chemical resource. Of course, energy and materials are strongly connected. In the future base chemicals will be oil, coal, biomass, water, air and many inorganic materials, including CO2. But most important is sunlight, or photons.

What role will catalysis play in this?

Catalysis is one of the most important element in science and technology. So you need some well-designed catalysts for photolysis of water with sunlight, generating hydrogen and oxygen. Furthermore, catalysts are crucial to keep our environment clean.

Then we also need efficient catalysts, because catalysis is the only way to manufacture useful compounds in an economical viable and environmental benign manner. In fact, currently more than 80 percent of all chemicals are products of, or are used in catalysis. I learned that the world market of catalysts is about 16 billion US Dollar, and the chemical products obtained via catalysis are estimated to be worth seven trillion US-Dollar, so the contribution of catalysis to society is enormous. So we have to endeavour to develop efficient heterogenous and homogenous and biotechnical catalysts.

How will better understanding of enzymes and their catalytic mechanisms impact chemical synthesis and the design of novel catalysts?

Chemical and Biological catalysis are complementary, and precise molecular manipulation via bond breaking or bond forming reactions is highly diverse. Some transformations are best achieved by microbes, using their enzymes. But other reactions are better achieved by chemical catalysis. In the future base- or acid-resistant or more stable enzymes are to be developed. We chemists are forced to envy the high specificity of encymatic reactions. From a scientific point of view we sometimes require very elucidated enzymatical mechanisms. On the other hand the chemical catalysts are more diverse in terms of reactivity, because we have so many catalytically active elements in the periodic table. We can generate a range of new chemical reaction using all kinds of minerals or complexes. Enzymes consist mainly of C, H, O, N, P and sometimes copper, iron and zinc. Chemists can use a variety of elements. So that’s why they are complemental. Some enzymes can do strange things, and we need at the same time to explore new chemistry.

You mention the power that comes with chemistry and the resulting responsibility for society. When you were a young chemist, did you already feel this responsibility for the well-being of society?

No, and yes. As I said, chemistry has a strong relation to society so I have long admired german chemistry, there it’s a national science. Germany produced 58 Nobel laureates in chemistry alone. In addition I would say that the chemical industry is the foundation of Germany as a modern country. You know, many of them are heroes in your country: Fritz Haber, Carl Bosch, Karl Ziegler are all towering scientists. Their academic achievements are outstanding, and they had a great impact on society. That’s why I respect the german chemistry. And that’s what inspired me to work for society. The relationship between science and society varies from county to country and it depends on the situation. So in the past science was an itellectual challenge in western countries, but it was something different in asian countries.

In my youth I was directed by my father, who was a gifted research director of a japanese company. At the age of 12 I was highly impressed by the power of chemistry, when I heard that Nylon was made from coal, water and air. Then five years later, at the end of the second world war , when japan was still very, very poor, germany made a quick economic recovery, but Japan’s recovery was rather slow. Then I learned from my father that the chemical industry was crucial for the economic recovery of my homeland Japan. So I studied industrial chemistry rather than pure chemistry. Later however I had a career in academia for some reason, so I missed my chance to work in industry, that’s my regret.

So that’s why I’m interested in the industrial endeavour. I will not stay within the ivory tower. Chemistry, particularly in germany, has a strong impact on the economy, through chemical industry. So academic research was directed towards basic science in in the late 1950 and early 1960s, in response to the governmental policies of the US, which emphasized the importance of basic research. Anyway, academia and industry must cooperate more closely.

More closely than they do now?

Yes. This is very important: I see very important differences in the scientific environment between my youth and today. In the past, scientific endeavour was primarily an intellectual challenge, driven by the curiosity of individuals. The governments in many countries started to recognize that science is a major origin of national competitiveness, particularly in the economy and in military power. As a result, the chemical industry flourished in the last century.

Now the situation is going to change. Science is becoming more important, not only for national interest, for economic competitiveness, but for the existence, or for the security of humankind. As former U.N. secretary general Kofi Annan said: Water, energy, health, agriculture, biodiversity and poverty are among the most important problems. Chemists should consider more of these public interests, for human security beyond economy. That’s quite important, an important trend.
Of course chemistry and the chemical industry are crucial for the survival of humankind. Chemistry is everywhere in society. Because of this power, chemists in both academia and industry have immense social responsibilities.

Chemistry itself is value-neutral but we should cleverly use chemical knowledge, and in this regard green chemistry and green technology is the most important issue. I think universities should teach scientific ethics in some lessons. But green chemistry has just begun, and it’s not easy to realize. Green chemistry should not be a mere slogan or catchphrase. It needs to be promoted and supported by the scientific community as well as by government, industry and all parts of society. I want to emphasize that researchers should not stay in the ivory tower but to go out in town to convince that it’s important. And I also say that the activities of the scientific community need public support and public understandig. That’s important. You journalists may have a wider view than we scientists do, but you have an immense responsibility to society in this regard.

In your lecture you said “Close involvement with society is the destiny of science.” But interacting directly with the public often hinders the career, for example because people feel it takes time away from research. Should there be more incentives for scientists to engage with society?

Well, I think time is important to everybody. So when you say that people should concentrate on research – of course. But education is a duty of an academic scientist. Normally the audience is mainly students, but sometimes the larger public, journalists, media, high officials, politicians and many other. So interest in the scientific literacy of the general public is extremely important these days. Science is amusing and also a key element in allour lives. Besides we should know that the activities of the scientific community are only sustainable with the understanding and support of the general public. Teaching non-professional people is amusing – it is not easy, it’s a great challenge. And that is why so many Nobel laureates gather here at lindau.

Where are the limits of what chemistry can achieve, and what do they mean for the future of scientific research?

Science has no limits. The possibilities of science, including chemistry, are infinite. In practice it is only limited by the imaginary power of mankind. I myself lose the power of imagination, because of my age, however, our young successors are full of curiosity, passion and persistence that drives the progress of chemistry. So I believe in the unlimited creativity of mankind. In terms of chemistry, molecules are composed from atoms. Every Molecule is by definition made up of a finite number of atoms connected in accordance with a fixed set of rules. They have a single configuration and several conformation. Based on such precise structures, molecules can have interesting properties and important functions. Importantly, we can design and synthesize any molecule at will, therefore that means we can generate any property or function, using our accumulated scientific knowledge. The problem is: How to design these properties and functions? That’s hard. But we can think about it.

So without doubt chemistry is a key element of all scientific history. But one clear direction of this core science is to merge with other fields of science to create a more broadly-based science. In view of the very nature of chemistry its integration with other such fields will have enormous scientific and technological impact. In this regard the overspecialisation in chemical education is to be avoided.

When climate change is discussed, many people believe that improvements in current technology will eventually solve most problems. What direction should science take to serve society best, in your view?

Owing to the realisation that we will survive only within the confinement of our planet earth, improvement of our current science-based technology is probably not enough to sustain our affluent civilised society. So we need a range of more powerful technologies based on new scientific principles. How to discover these priciples, no one knows. Such discoveries, by definition cannot be planned, unfortunately. So scientific discovery is of course very frequently accidental.

It only originates from the serendipity of old and very young scientists. So we should encourage our young generation to research in all directions. This is also the reason why we are here in Lindau.
The slogan of this Lindau meeting is: The scientific world is borderless. So scientists in both advanced and emerging nations, having a different background and different values, must cooperate without boundaries for the sustainability of humankind. That’s my view.

Do you feel that the limitations and possibilities of science and technology are adequately understood by the general public?

The general public underestimates science, but on the other hand overly expects to reap the fruits of scientific activity. Both, science and technology are a long-time endeavour.

Thank you for your time.


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