Evgeny Pidko: Chemistry is a Catalyst for Success

Evgeny Pidko, professor at Eindhoven University of Technology develops theory of of catalysis and also studies different aspects of inorganic chemistry by computations. Dr. Pidko is very skilled in explaining his work in simple words – that was one of the requirements for a PhD defense in Netherlands to give a scientific lecture accessible to a general audience. The ITMO Fellowship & Professorship Program's finalist shared the reasons for coming and working at the university.

Please tell about your field in simple words.

I study inorganic chemistry. I work on artificial objects so as to proof that man-made inventions can be much more effective than the nature-made objects.

I also study mechanisms of chemical reactions to understand the principles for total control over materials and nature. My research mainly focused on the field of catalysis. Catalysis is a principle that provides with the tools to regulate chemical reactions.  By adding a small amount of a particular substance named catalyst, we can enable and accelerate a conversion of other chemicals towards some desirable products. The basics of this principle resemble the life of highlanders. Imagine that chemical substances live in valleys surrounded by mountains.  To change from one state to another, i.e. to get from one valley to the next one, substances have to pass over the mountains. 

In classical chemistry without using catalysis one heats the substances so that they climb thanks to the heating energy and then pass over the highest mountain top. The problem is that the substance when it reaches the peak of the mountain can decide to descent to a different valley and not to the one where it originally planned to go. In chemistry this would mean that in addition to the desirable medicine or polymer building block or any other useful compound, the reaction will produce some waste molecules. In chemistry the ratio between the desirable and waste products is usually called selectivity. Selectivity defines to a large extend the economics and environmental footprint of the chemical process.

What is a catalysis? It is an old experienced mountaineer who knows the longer but at the same time simpler way to the valley without climbing high mountains.  Speaking in terms of a chemical reaction, it is a substance, which “leads” the molecules from one valley to another along a predefined route but is does not run out.

How does one use the results of the "new" chemistry? How can it be applied?

We study catalytic and develop new catalytic processes to improve the chemical industry and make it greener and more sustainable. For example, in pharma-chemistry, with every 1 kg of the target drag they produce up to 100 kg of waste. This is one of the most ineffective fields! Catalysis can help increasing the selectivity of such transformations and therefore dramatically reduce the amounts of generated wastes.

In classical chemistry intuition plays a very important role and often paves the way to of inventions. One can compare it with cookery. I don't know how many grams of salt I put in a soup. To synthesize new compounds and make a discovery one usually uses trial-and-error method.

I think that the time has come to change this paradigm. We have now tools and sufficient knowledge to transfer to a more rational approach towards inventions in chemistry. That is why I use methods of quantum chemistry to calculate parameters of the "valleys" and understand how to control chemical reactions. I know how the valley, from which molecules depart, and those I want them to arrive look like.   I study the pathways connecting these valleys. With the help of quantum chemical calculations, we can understand in great details where we should go, how we should do that and also how our “guide” should look like. That is what computational chemistry does. My research  is to a large extend devoted to such quantum chemical calculations applied to various problems related to such fields as sustainable energy, petrochemical industry, natural gas valorization and since recently pharma. 

I’ve been always interested in predicting synthesis of catalysts that is a very challenging issue. And exactly in this field I had the same interests as researchers at the International Research Center "Solution Chemistry of Advanced Materials and Technologies" (SCAMT).

Catalyst development looks like baking. All cookers use the same ingredients but the cakes still taste differently. My colleagues and I try to elaborate methods that will turn synthesis of these materials into design projects instead of cooking.

I want to develop the general principle, a theoretical model, which will help us understand what steps have to be done to create a catalyst. It is a long-term goal for about 15-20 years.

Evgeny Pidko, ITMO Fellowship/Professorship participant

Thus you are going to make a multi-purpose model. Isn’t it?

Yes, it will be possible to apply it not only to catalysis, but also for the design of functional materials. There are several fundamental problems in this field. Most of the established kinetic and thermodynamic theories describe routinely processes in gaseous and solid states.  However, when chemical reactions take place in liquids, their description and detailed analysis becomes very challenging.  - These are exactly the processes that are studied at the SCAMT Laboratory at ITMO University. Understanding such processes will allow us develop this model.

Please talk about some short-term goals.

I also work on methane activation and natural gas conversion. Currently Russia provides natural gas supply directly. I want the raw material to be processes so as to turn low density gas into a liquid, which would be easier to transport. It is more respectable and costs much more when one develops high-tech materials. 

The other area I work on is the application of carbon dioxide. Catalytic chemistry is completely based on petroleum resources that are non-renewable.  It is far more interesting to construct a sustainable system. Sustainable resources of carbon are plants, wood and carbon dioxide.  Fundamentally speaking, it is a great task - to apply carbon dioxide to produce more complex molecules. These are the main subjects that I work on in Eindhoven. 

Are there other applications of this technology?

Fruits and vegetables rot in a refrigerator because of hydrogen sulphide release. The Japanese have solved this problem by using a special catalyst, which counteracts hydrogen sulphide and makes food stay fresh longer. This technology is forbidden in Europe because it uses a toxic transition metal.  Thanks to the fundamental model I am working on, it will be possible to create alternative catalysts that are not based on noble metals. It will certainly help solving a wide range of tasks.

Furthermore, speaking of other issues apart from catalysis, the materials that we apply to methane activation can be used in the field of targeted drug production.

Why did you choose ITMO University to conduct your research work?

That was a lucky coincidence. I saw an announcement at Research Gate (social network for scientists), and I loved the idea of a Fellowship project.

One of the requirements was that the scientific interests of the researcher correlate with those of the International Laboratory. I made contact with Vladimir Vinogradov and we immediately found common ground.

I like working with students because of their enthusiasm and desire to reach goals. It motivates me to work as a supervisor. ITMO University is a non-classical institution, and we work here on something that is better described as nano-engineering rather than conventional chemistry.

Now we are developing an educational program in this field for the next five years. I want to take part in it as a lecturer. Bachelor's students that will complete this course will be able to continue their research at the Metamaterials Laboratory, International Research Center "Solution Chemistry of Advanced Materials and Technologies" and others.

Moreover, Eindhoven University of Technology and ITMO University have signed a cooperation agreement, which gives Russian Master's students an opportunity to join an internship program in the Netherlands.  Currently they cannot receive a Master's degree there but they can take courses free of charge and work in our research laboratories.

What computational power is enough for your research activities? Do you get all the necessary equipment at ITMO University?

Here we will probably one day shift to using cloud computing as opposed to supercomputing. Currently, international researchers rely on supercomputing centers. It does not make sense to build synthesis with your own supercomputers. Similar situation has emerged  in Russia. For example, there is the Lomonosov Supercomputer at Moscow State University, which is accessible to all Russian scientists.

I think that researchers should use supercomputers in cooperation.  From the ecological point of view, too many supercomputers means polluting emission, oil combustion - all of that result in global warming  and, more important, global climate change that can have unpredictable concequences.

Evgeny, why did you decide to study chemistry?

Chemistry rules the world! Love, mood, personal features - all of those are chemistry. Taking a valeriana pill turns you into a calm and relaxed person, even if you are feeling nervous and even irritated. A microscopic molecule can change one's view of life and behavior completely.

Why did you decide to continue you scientific career abroad?

I studied at Higher Chemical College of Russian Academy of Sciences and worked at N.D. Zelinsky Institute of Organic Chemistry with professor Vladimir B. Kazansky. We had a collaboration project with Eindhoven University of Technology; after the project, I went there for an internship as a young scientist, and they offered me a position. And I told myself - why not?

I think it's really important to go abroad after one gets his Master's or specialist degree. Be it China, USA or Japan - one needs new experience. Academic mobility is very important. Modern scientific community is international.

Is it true that it's difficult for a Russian scientist to get a permanent position in a western research center?

That's conjecture. I have a permanent position.

The return of Russian scientists back to Russia - is that a tendency?

Academic mobility is the modern system of the world’s scientific community. I know established scientists who are the heads of laboratories in European universities being at the same time directors of research institutions in the United States so that they have to fly back and forth literally every three days.

I understand that the scientist's return back to Russia is an essential political problem. But that isn't about returning - it is rather about joining the international exchange, the formation of an open system.

There are lots of scientific and research establishments, is there any difference in their approach, their traditions?

Each school has its own scientific approach. It is impossible to create a most effective model for conducting research based on one single experiment. To create one's own scientific school and become a great scientist, one has to learn from different places. That is what academic mobility is for.

What do you learn from ITMO's school?

First of all, management. Proffessors Vinogradovs have a completely different approach to interacting with students.

Here I learn new ways of managing. It's also good for me as a father, it teaches raising my own kids. For example, if you do everything by yourself, they won't learn anything. So becoming an advisor rather than supervisor is  my personal challenge.

Please comment on the opinion that social networking has become more important for a scientist than publications in scientific magazines.

I disagree. Social networks are important for involving the youth, but for me, participating in conferences and writing articles is what's important. Scientists must do science, and science writing is for scientific journalists. Speaking of this, ITMO's Science Journalism Master’s program is a great initiative.

Twitting is not a scientist's task. My work isn't something that can be described with a single phrase. One would need an article, lots of data, tables to understand it - and twitter is not suited for such things.

Personally, I listen to the "Science in focus" program on the Echo of Moscow, led by Egor Bykovsky (editorial remark: http://echo.msk.ru/programs/naukafokus/). They are really good at talking about science, I listen to every issue and find out new things for myself.

Tell of your plans, what are you going to do in 20 years’ time?

I like teaching. I will definitely continue to teach the young. I want to teach them to think, to maintain a critical approach towards themselves and their work, to formulate their ideas and solve scientific tasks.

So, in 20 years I will be doing the same things I do now. What scientific problem I will be working on? - that's a different question, and I don't know the answer yet.

I teach inorganic chemistry, but I don't restrict teaching to my scientific field only. I share my vision on how the world works, how one should behave, what are the moral imperatives. I teach how to do research work, how to interact with one's colleagues.

What will be your advice for the students on what specialty to choose, so that in 5 years there will still be prospects? What can bring commercial success?

Science won't make you rich. You have to do what's interesting to you. There can be lots of money to some field, but if it’s boring to someone, he won't earn any. There has to be a spark.

If you don't know what to do - choose IT, obviously. But if you are interested in something particular, choose robotics, optics, physics.

If you're good at fundamental physics or applied mathematics - you'll always be in demand. If you choose chemistry - the skills of working with chemical materials, the ability to think using chemical formulas can open any roads.

I think science journalism has a good future as well. That will be a good choice for the coming year. As of now, there are few people in this area, so one can achieve a lot.

Is there a difference between Russian and Netherlands career guidance system? Do they explain, where to go?

No, and no one can. The love for science, the will to do science largely depends on one's teachers. For instance, chemistry is extremely interesting. But they aren’t good at explaining in schools, they teach it like it’s some cooking class, make students learn everything by heart. And that's universal approach. To explain chemistry logically, one first has to teach quantum chemistry and the basics of physics.

As for me, my love for chemistry was thanks to my schoolteacher - Kuznetsova Alla Alexandrovna. Lots of people I know picked up chemistry thanks to her only.

Is there any use in attracting specialists into chemistry by raising the wages?

Well, the Prime Minister has told the truth - they don't pay much to teachers anywhere. If one wants money, he should choose business. Physician, scientist, teacher - these professions imply that you have something more than just material interests.

If one becomes a doctor to earn money, he won't care about you and he has no intention to cure you. He's rather interested in conducting expensive examinations to earn some more. Maybe that's why they pay less in these professions.

Science, education, medicine – it is about something more than just tangible benefits.

 

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