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Sustainable futures

Can you use spanners?

Martyn is a pioneering figure in so many ways. He’s an innovator in supercritical fluids and green chemistry and gave credibility to the field. He’s an inspiration to me, Steve Howdle (head of the School of Chemistry), Mike George and many others in the broader scientific community. Martyn challenged us all to think differently and took us on amazing journeys that helped define our careers.

Martyn continues to train young people but doesn’t seek out the ‘easy’ student – he looks for people with a spark in in their eyes and he has genuinely changed lives. So many of us have our own Poliakoff moments to share. 

When I came to interview with him for a PDRA (postdoctoral research assistant) position late in 1999 he chatted with me like no other academic I’d ever met. The first thing he asked me was “can you use spanners?” – we were developing high-pressure steel reactors for new processes. Martyn loves building equipment and another thing that set him apart was his interest in working with chemical engineers; we nicknamed the approach “synthesis with a spanner.” 

"The first thing he asked me was “can you use spanners?”"
Professor Pete Licence

Martyn has had a global impact, as a scientist and an educator. We were walking down the street in Helsinki and people were recognising him and he said: (in a Russian accent) “Comrade, don’t worry they are looking at me!” 

It’s also significant that Martyn is a passionate advocate for science in the developing world and our links with colleagues who are building capacity for green chemistry in Ethiopia have been truly rewarding. I remember being on the street in Addis Ababa and thinking ‘wow, how did a boy from a small town in mid Wales get here?’. By being so good at giving people opportunities to think differently, he puts us in positions we could never anticipate.” 

Pete Licence

Pete Licence is a Professor of Chemistry and Director of the University’s GSK Carbon Neutral Laboratory.

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