An astonishing amount of chemical waste is produced in the making of everyday consumer goods, such as antibiotics, blue jeans and cellphone screens. As a leader in green chemistry and director of the University of Ottawa’s Centre for Catalysis Research and Innovation, Michael Organ is keenly aware of the urgent need to develop cleaner manufacturing processes.
In the early 2000s, Organ and his research team developed the Pd-PEPPSI family of catalysts. In essence, catalysts are molecules that speed up chemical reactions without being consumed.
Organ’s team has developed catalysts that are faster and generate less waste during a chemical reaction than their predecessors. Patented in 2005 and commercialized in 2006, these new catalysts have since been used by some 40 companies in over a dozen countries, mainly to produce fine chemicals for the pharmaceutical, electronics and agrochemical industries.
“Catalysts are basically little motors that drive the assembly of chemical structure. They are molecules that are able to convert one molecule into another, ideally with great speed and high selectivity for a desired product,” says the researcher. “Every company in the world that makes fine chemicals will have Pd-PEPPSI catalysts on the shelf.”
For his outstanding catalysis discoveries, Michael Organ has received the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) John C. Polanyi Award, which honours an exceptional science or engineering innovation in Canada. “Michael Organ highly deserves this recognition,” says Sylvain Charbonneau, vice-president, research. “His work puts the University of Ottawa at the forefront of clean technology research, which is increasingly pivotal in defining our future.”
Because catalysis speeds up chemical reactions, eliminates steps and produces more of a desired compound, it is considered one of the 12 principles of green chemistry. “Let’s say we consume 10 tonnes of a particular drug; it means we could have 1000 tonnes of waste. That is just one drug for one company. The quantity of chemicals that are made annually is actually staggering,” says Organ, who leads a team of more than 20 researchers working to improve green catalysis technologies. “The new direction in which we are headed is to make catalysis more sustainable by creating reactions with fewer unwanted by-products.”
Given that catalysis is involved in the production of most consumer goods, discoveries by Michael Organ and his team have significant economic and ecological potential. These catalysts could fundamentally change the way we manufacture chemicals — for a cleaner future.