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Good students, bad students, and biocatalysis

- Wits University

Professor Roger Sheldon of the Wits School of Chemistry delivers his Inaugural Lecture.

You can immediately tell the difference between a “good student” and a “not so good student”, says Professor Roger Sheldon, one of the fathers of green chemistry and the 2010 winner of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Green Chemistry Award.

When faced with a challenge, the “not so good” student will come up to you and say “Professor, it didn’t work, do you have any other ideas?” But the good student will say “it didn’t work, but I thought about it a bit, and …”

Sheldon, a Professor in the Wits School of Chemistry delivered his Inaugural Lecture at Wits on 26 July 2016. In his lecture, he gave an overview of Green Chemistry and sustainable development, before taking his audience on a journey of the use of enzymes as biocatalysts in organic chemistry.

Sheldon, who is globally recognised as an expert on catalysis and green chemistry and the (co)author of several books on the subject of catalysis as well as more than 400 professional papers and 50 granted patents, spoke of the need to improve the way we produce chemicals.

“Everything we use, we borrow from future generations. We have to put it back, as we have received it,” he says. “Natural resources should be used at rates that don’t unacceptably deplete supply over the long term.”

We are using fossil fuels much faster than the rate at which they are being generated and we are generating CO2 at a rate that can’t be assimilated by the environment, and that is leading to climate change.

“We need to close the carbon cycle and only then would we have a truly circular economy,” he says.

By using biocatalysts to improve the production of chemicals, Sheldon, and his colleagues have made several major breakthroughs in green chemistry, even developing magnetised enzymes, which could be recycled out of liquids (and re-used), by separating the magnetised enzymes from the liquids.

“Biocatalysis is green and sustainable, and it has made enormous progress in the last two to three decades, and the performance can be dramatically improved by biocatalysis engineering,” he says.      

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