In his element
Sir Martyn’s favourite element is sodium. Not because dropping it in water and generating hydrogen creates one of his trademark crowd-pleasing explosions. It’s because his mother Ina’s childhood nickname was ’Na, and Martyn’s own children called their grandmother ’Na, too. “Whenever I see the symbol for sodium in a chemical formula,” he says, “I get a warm, motherly feeling, it’s always with me – Na – my mother’s name.” It’s classic Poliakoff: quirky, insightful and playful.
Professor Sir Martyn Poliakoff, star of the YouTube phenomenon the Periodic Table of Videos (1.2 million subscribers and counting), is the University of Nottingham’s most globally recognised academic. In his day job, he pioneered the use of supercritical fluids to replace traditional solvents in chemical processes, recognising decades ago, and ahead of many of his peers, that the world needs cleaner, less wasteful and more sustainable ways of manufacturing.
“When I started supercritical research in Nottingham in 1985, I was the only person in the University who was interested in them,” he said. Supercritical fluids – high-pressure CO2 or sometimes high-pressure steam – are compressed so that they are nearly as dense as liquids. When chemists increase a substance’s pressure and temperature beyond its critical point the resulting supercritical fluid has some of the properties of both gases and liquids but it is neither. Supercritical fluids can be difficult to handle, but they have numerous roles in experimental and commercial chemistry.
Whenever I see the symbol for sodium in a chemical formula,” he says, “I get a warm, motherly feeling, it’s always with me – Na – my mother’s name.
Today it is no longer a left-field area of research and green chemistry lies at the heart of the global drive to provide for the needs of growing populations without further damaging our planet.
Sir Martyn’s knighthood in 2015 was in recognition of leadership in the field of sustainable chemistry and also his tireless work as a global ambassador for UK science. As the Foreign Secretary and Vice-President of the Royal Society from 2011-16, Sir Martyn spent at least half his time travelling the world – inspiring, galvanising and sharing knowledge. “It was really enjoyable but also quite tiring.” Relinquishing this role may have been something of a relief, but doesn’t mean he’s been resting. “Very fortunately, the month that I finished at the Royal Society, my colleague Mike George (Professor of Chemistry) got a very large grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for the Photo-Electro project. I’m one of the co-investigators and I’ve probably been busier than I’ve been for a long time.”
Photo-Electro is a collaborative project between the universities of Nottingham, Southampton and Bristol. It explores how continuous photo, electro and thermo-chemistry can support more sustainable manufacturing. Sir Martyn is part of the team investigating how pressurised flow chemistry reactors can be developed to support this by performing reactions that are faster, cleaner and safer. At Wonder, the University’s biannual research showcase in June, the team will be explaining their work (with simple demonstrations based on coffee pots and LEGO), and will again put photochemistry in the spotlight at the Royal Society’s own Summer Science Exhibition in London in the first week of July.
Sir Martyn’s is a familiar face at Wonder and it is with some pride that this year’s event is themed around the 150th anniversary of the Periodic Table of Elements.
Indeed it was Sir Martyn who first suggested the idea that 2019 should be celebrated as the UNESCO-backed International Year of the Periodic Table. He helped promote the year with an address delivered in Russian to a 2,000-strong audience in Moscow (Sir Martyn’s father and grandfather were both Russian physicists “but my maths wasn’t strong enough to follow them”).
"Dmitri Mendeleev’s first publication of his Periodic Table was in 1869, the same year that supercritical fluids were first described in a sensible way. So 1869 was a big year for me!"
“Dmitri Mendeleev’s first publication of his Periodic Table was in 1869, the same year that supercritical fluids were first described in a sensible way. So 1869 was a big year for me! The periodic table is iconic – not only is it a landmark for science; it’s also a terrific marketing tool and I’m so pleased that colleagues at the University and people around the world share my enthusiasm.
“I think that one of the main roles of my research is to demonstrate to others what might be possible and to inspire them to take a more imaginative approach to greener chemical processing. The amount that any one individual can do is limited but, if one can inspire and mobilise others, everyone’s efforts can make a real difference.” With a typically deadpan, softly spoken aside, he adds: “I suppose that sounds a bit pompous?”