“Failed catalysts”: an interview with Evgeny Pidko

Hi Evgeny, thank you for the interview! Could you introduce yourself to our readers?
Sure! My name is Evgeny Pidko and I am an assistant professor at Eindhoven University of Technology and also a part-time professor at ITMO University in St. Petersburg. I am a physical chemist by training, painter by hobby and proud father of a son and a daughter by a lucky choice of the best ever partner for life 🙂

My expertise is in mechanisms in inorganic chemistry and catalysis. Currently, I am supervising two research projects within MCEC, both dealing with the topic of biomass conversion. One project is purely theoretical and another one is purely experimental but they both deal with the idea of finding an efficient way to convert biomass to aromatic compounds that we could use for producing various useful chemicals and materials.

What exactly is the ERC Consolidator Grant?
ERC Consolidator grant is a very prestigious award of the European Research Council (ERC) that is given to scientists at their ‘early-mid-career’ stage so that they can focus on innovative and groundbreaking science and forget about bureaucratic hurdles, teaching overload, contract research, pressure from end users; you name it. The grant provides the principle investigator with 2 million euros for 5 years with which he/she can hire researchers, establish the lab of his/her dreams and focus on science.

What project did you apply with?
In my project I decided to address a problem that is fascinating, but quite difficult to ‘sell’. You see, I decided to focus on failed catalysts. People prefer to focus on positive aspects of life and scientists are no exception to that. So when it comes to catalysis, we tend to focus on active and working catalytic systems and study those, trying to explain why they are so active. But when you try to use this knowledge to make a new catalyst, 9 times out of 10, you don’t exactly get what you’d expect.

Instead of a living catalyst that converts molecules to products that you need, you get a dead substance that does either nothing or something you wouldn’t like it to do. For me as a partially theoretical chemist, it was always a puzzle why a system that by all theories must be very active, is in reality entirely… dead.

So I decided to write a proposal entitled ‘DeLiCAT: DEath and LIfe of CATalysts’,  where the problem of catalyst deactivation and catalyst inactivity has a central role. In other words, the ‘living’ and ‘non-living’ of catalysts.

Evgeny Pidko 2

What will DeLiCAT do?
In this proposal, my research team will study the fundamental aspects of catalyst activity and deactivation for a number of chemical processes relevant to the fields of catalytic biomass conversion and hydrogen technology, using both state-of-the-art theoretical and experimental approaches.

When writing this grant, I actually realized that the problems of decomposition, degradation of materials and catalysts receive quite little attention from the scientific community today. In the last year I got appointed as part-time professor of theoretical chemistry at ITMO University, where I try to establish a research group focusing on computational design of functional materials. One of the important topic that we study there –  and that is related directly to the concepts I formulated in this ERC grant – is: can we use intrinsic instability of some classes of materials (after we learn how to control it) for targeted drug delivery and non-linear optics applications? These are very exciting and new subjects for me that I practice in my free time 🙂

And what are your plans for the future?
My plans are now to focus on science and make it work! It is great that my ideas have got this support. Now I have to show (for myself first of all) that the ERC made the right decision. I am excited for the many opportunities that this grant creates for me. My short-term plan is to build a team of excellent young scientists who will share my excitement for science and technology.

Thank you, Evgeny, and keep us posted on DeLiCAT matters!