Killam Fellowships awarded to Professors Jonathan Abbatt and Robert Morris

November 24, 2015 by Mandy Koroniak

Professors Jonathan Abbatt and Robert Morris were each awarded a Killam Research Fellowship in 2015. With just six Killam Research Fellowships awarded each year to researchers from all disciplines across Canada, having two fellowships awarded within Chemistry is a testament to the stellar research taking place in our department.

When Professor Robert Morris thinks about iron, he sees the promise of catalysts that are more efficient, cheaper, and greener than those currently in use. His project, Developing Catalysts Based on Iron, focuses on the discovery and understanding of iron-based catalysts, which have the potential to replace the expensive, rare and sometimes toxic platinum metals typically used in hydrogenation catalysis by industries producing fuels, bulk chemicals and fine chemicals including pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals and fragrances.

This work builds upon his 2007 discovery of the first iron catalyst for adding hydrogen to polar bonds, carbon-oxygen double bonds, and carbon-nitrogen double bonds, which Morris later showed is not only cheaper but more efficient than the known commercially available catalysts.

Morris’s iron-based catalysts are attractive because the source material is nontoxic, abundant in nature, and much less costly than the expensive platinum metals currently in use. Not only is iron cheap and readily available, but as an element essential to life, small amounts can remain in pharmaceutical intermediates following catalysis without doing harm, something which is not possible with platinum metals like ruthenium.

At the same time, Morris has discovered that iron catalysts are highly efficient. As homogenous catalysts, the metal is fully used up in the catalytic process thanks to special organic synthesis methods innovated by Morris and his team of researchers. All of this makes for hydrogenation catalysis that is cheaper, creates less waste, and eliminates the use of toxic precursors.

Professor Jonathan Abbatt, on the other hand, is working on a quite different problem. An atmospheric chemist, Abbatt is studying aerosol particles in the Arctic, and seeks to understand the impact of these particles on climate change. Abbatt’s Killam Fellowship, Aerosol Particles and Climate: Addressing Fundamental Connections in the Canadian Arctic, is leveraging a large network that he leads, NETCARE (Network on Climate and Aerosols: Addressing Key Uncertainties in Remote Canadian Environments), which includes collaborators from ten Canadian universities as well as Environment Canada.

Using state-of-the-art analytical chemistry equipment and methods, the NETCARE team has already undertaken three field campaigns in the Arctic, taking aircraft aerosol measurements using a highly sensitive mass spectrometer and other aerosol instruments deployed on a German aircraft outfitted for polar research, and gas and aerosol measurements while aboard the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Amundsen.

Abbatt is working to address a number of difficult questions concerning aerosols in the Arctic, including how changes to Arctic temperatures and ice extent effect the character of aerosols, and the sources and distribution of black carbon particles in the Arctic atmosphere and snow. These questions have big implications for climate change, as aerosols interfere with incoming or outgoing radiation, and are also the sites on which clouds form.

Black carbon, for example, absorbs sunlight and therefore has a direct warming effect. It has been argued that after C02 emissions, black carbon is the 2nd most important warming agent that humans have introduced to the environment since pre-industrial times. Changes to sea ice extent mean that more biologically-generated chemicals are released from the ocean that go on to form particles in the atmosphere, consequently changing the character of Arctic aerosols, and in turn, possibly cloud formation. Understanding these connections and processes fully remains a great challenge in atmospheric science.

Both Morris and Abbatt note that the Killam Fellowship will afford them more time to think about the science and facilitate collaborations. Abbatt may participate in another field campaign and will work closely with his collaborators, particularly those at Dalhousie University, Université Laval, UBC and Environment Canada. Morris has already spent some time in Germany and is working to set up a graduate exchange program with the University of Münster with Profs. Stephan and Lautens.

When asked how UofT Chemistry has enabled their success, both Morris and Abbatt excitedly discuss their students and departmental resources. “Our department attracts phenomenal students,” says Morris, “You can have great ideas, but you need great people in the lab too. We’ve attracted significant funding to improve the facilities of the department, and that’s had a huge impact. The whole place is set for doing great research.”