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Father of Green Chemistry: A catalyst for climate change

- Deborah Minors

Distinguished Professor in the School of Chemistry at Wits, Roger Sheldon is a globally recognised authority on Green Chemistry.

Sheldon is also Professor Emeritus of Biocatalysis and Organic Chemistry at the Delft University of Technology.

His expertise in Green Chemistry includes the development of methods for quantifying the environmental impact of chemical processes, such as E factors (which refers to the two measures of the potential environmental acceptability of chemical processes), and atom utilisation.

“Everything we use, we borrow from future generations. We have to put it back as we have received it,” says Sheldon.

“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.”

In 2015, Sheldon was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society, which is the UK Academy of Science. In 2010, the Royal Society of Chemistry conferred its Green Chemistry Award for his work on Green Catalysis and Biocatalysis research.

Catalysts promote chemical reaction due to the participation of an additional substance, called a catalyst. Biocatalysis is the use of natural substances to speed up (or catalyse) chemical reactions.

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.

Read more about research at Wits in Wits Research Matters.