François Jérôme is a research director at the CNRS University of Poitiers, France. His research is focused on the catalytic activation of biomass and the subsequent conversion of the products to value-added chemicals. François took a few moments to chat to Green Chemistry to talk about the challenges facing this field of research…
Who or what initially inspired you to become a chemist?
When I was a kid, I was very curious and I always wanted to have a rational explanation on many natural phenomena such as volcanoes, earthquakes, storms, space, etc… Later, when I entered the University, I had the chance to attend the courses of Prof. Pierre Dixneuf. During three consecutive years, he taught me with enthusiasm and passion catalysis and organometallic chemistry. His courses really gave me the taste of chemistry.
What has been the motivation behind your recent research?
The depletion of fossil carbon reserves together with the continuous increase of the barrel price requires the society to imagine and design new and innovative strategies. In this context, fascinating works have recently been proposed that now open new fields to be explored in chemistry. In particular, the synthesis of fine chemicals and chemical platforms from non-edible resources has become a fascinating topic. Beside the green aspect of this approach, the biggest challenge faced by chemists consists in designing bio-based chemicals with superior performances than fossil-derived chemicals while respecting the essential requirements of economic competitiveness and social progress. The concept of green chemistry has dramatically changed the way we work and driven us to think about chemistry differently. In particular, the design of an atom economical or energy-saving process is not self-satisfied anymore and major other issues of green chemistry need to be addressed such as supply of renewable raw materials, structural variability of biomass, which plants for which markets, biodiversity, resource management (water, metal, carbon) and environmental impact of processes. All of these considerations are really motivating mainly because the successful design of a “green process” obviously requires close collaborations between researchers with different scientific horizons.
What do you see as the main challenges facing research in this area?
Lignocellulosic biomass clearly represents a huge reservoir of renewable carbon and will be one of the key raw materials in the future for the chemical industry. Nowadays, many works are focusing on the catalytic conversion of chemicals derived from lignocellulosic biomass. Although major breakthroughs have been reported, little attention is unfortunately given to the pre-treatment of lignocellulosic biomass, an unavoidable pre-requisite step after which chemical platforms and transportation fuels can be then produced. Pre-treatment is essential and aims at increasing the accessibility of lignocelluloses to (bio)catalysts. Pre-treatment of lignocellulosic biomass is clearly a major bottleneck that hampers for instance the production of ethanol in a larger scale. To date, a few questions remained unsolved. How to depolymerize lignocellulosic biomass under mild conditions without degrading sugars? What kind of chemical bond is more prone to cleavage? How a (bio)catalyst can diffuse within the backbone of lignocellulose? What market for what kind of lignin? The ideal pre-treatment process will also have to take into account the structural variability of lignocellulosic biomass, the presence of water but also impurities such as minerals. It makes no doubt that all these questions will be the subject of intense research in a close future and answers to these questions will undoubtedly favor the emergence of bio-based chemicals in a more rational way.
Where do you see the field of Green Chemistry being in 5 or 10 years time?
It is very difficult to answer at this question. Nevertheless, we can draw at the moment few horizons for green chemistry. In the past years, green chemistry focused on the eco-efficient construction of chemicals and materials. I do believe that in 5-10 years, the word “deconstruction” will be more familiar. In particular, the deconstruction of polymers, materials, among others will become a very important issue of green chemistry mainly boosted by the necessity to recycle carbon (but also water and metals) including waste. As mentioned above, the word deconstruction is also the preliminary step in biorefineries and deconstruction of lignocellulosic biomass is an inescapable step prior to envisage the production of bio-based chemicals or energy.
For lignocellulosic biomass there are two different perspectives. First of all, topics related to the production of fine chemicals from lignocellulosic biomass will certainly continue to be developed and innovative processes will presumably contribute to produce chemicals with a higher selectivity and efficiency. These processes will provide new and cheap chemicals with comparable or even higher performances than chemicals issued from fossil reserves. This topic should open new markets that will stimulate scientists.
The biggest challenge of green chemistry will be undoubtedly energy. Although many works pointed out that energy can be produced from biomass, one should mention that this approach cannot be used on a large scale mainly because of the problem of biomass transportation. Clearly, it is my opinion, that production of energy from biomass should be dedicated to small and local units and we should not expect to produce energy in a large amount from biomass in the future. In this field, we can dream or hope that green chemistry will contribute to propose rational solutions. In particular, the holy grail of green chemistry in the field of energy will certainly be the production of hydrogen by water splitting or the reduction of carbon dioxide to methanol. Nevertheless, all chemists know that thermodynamics will be the worst enemy here and in all processes we always have to think how much energy we consume.
In conclusion, I would say that, in the field of energy, green chemistry should lead us to admit that we have to change our way of life and to use energy/raw materials differently, hopefully in a more rational and sustainable way.
If you could not be a scientist, but could be anything else, what would you be?
If I was not a scientist, I would have liked to be a journalist because I like the contact with people. I like exchanging opinions on different topics and I find it particularly interesting to discuss things with people who do not have the same opinions as me. This is a very important point that contributes to open our minds on many different aspects of the society, including science.
Take a look at a few of François’ recent Green Chemistry articles below – all free to access until the 10th December 2012:
Combination of ball-milling and non-thermal atmospheric plasma as physical treatments for the saccharification of microcrystalline cellulose, Maud Benoit, Anthony Rodrigues, Karine De Oliveira Vigier, Elodie Fourré, Joël Barrault, Jean-Michel Tatibouët and François Jérôme, Green Chem., 2012, 14, 2212-2215
Conversion of fructose and inulin to 5-hydroxymethylfurfural in sustainable betaine hydrochloride-based media, Karine De Oliveira Vigier, Adlene Benguerba, Joël Barrault and François Jérôme, Green Chem., 2012, 14, 285-289
Self-assembly and emulsions of oleic acid–oleate mixtures in glycerol, Mathieu Delample, François Jérôme, Joël Barrault and Jean-Paul Douliez, Green Chem., 2011, 13, 64-68
Keep up-to-date with the latest content in Green Chemistry by registering for our free table of contents alerts.