What should we teach? Industrial chemists versus academics: The panel discussed a number of different questions, most of which were academic in nature ("Are there any nominations for an "organometallic molecule of the year" for 2011?"). One of them seemed to generate more discussion between the different panel members. The editor of Organometallics asked about Whitesides and Deutsch's editorial (where they state that chemical academia is need of more innovation). This led to a (for this panel) heated discussion between Dr. Joachim Ritter of DuPont and Prof. James Mayer at the University of Washington, among others. A condensed version is below:
Joachim Ritter: [SNIP] What is involved in not just making 100 mg or a gram of a material, but 100 million pounds, and what are the implications? Challenges in the industrial world include space−time yields, purification methods, catalyst recovery and lifetime, solvent usage, etc. These topics sound straightforward, but when you’re actually working in industry developing new processes with broadly trained junior chemists coming straight out of top schools, sometimes you see that very talented chemists have a hard time connecting to these challenges. So I do feel there is something to be done in education. In addition to an in-depth drive toward the newest cutting edge developments in science, there needs to be a perspective of today’s problems in the context of chemistry.I found this to be a really interesting discussion that condenses the problems of academics and industry into a short conversation. While Dr. Ritter is most interested in teaching the constraints that he (and the chemical industry) work under and (I believe) sees it as a source for direction and innovation, the professors seem to see his views as unnecessarily clouding the picture and constraining creativity. There's a clear balance to be struck here, but I think Professor Meyer is onto something when he notes that the economic constraints are very different between industries and may limit the applicability of that kind of analysis.
Jerzy Klosin: I wholeheartedly second Joachim’s analysis. I often visit the websites of university professors and you can sometimes see on these sites what type of chemistries have been reviewed during group meetings. It turns out that this is nearly exclusively outtakes from other professors’ research. Very little is actually devoted to industrial processes that would highlight the difficulties with commercializing new technologies. [SNIP]
Jim Mayer: [SNIP] I think we also want to be very careful in going down the path of training chemistry students in the details of cost estimation and commercialization. When I was a postdoc at DuPont, discussions of such topics were led by expert engineers, with people who could for instance estimate capital costs of a plant. I think we can sensitize our students that such issues are important, but I don’t think it’s valuable for academic chemists like me to try to decide what kinds of processes are practical. Practical means that somebody could make money practicing the technology, and even the professionals aren’t so good at predicting that.
Joachim Ritter: I agree with you, but there is something to be said for raising awareness in a structured way... I’ll give an example: there’s a lot of people running studies on dissolving lignocellulose in ionic liquids, and I think it’s important to look into this option from a fundamental point of view. But at the same time, promoting this concept as an industrial process is audacious. You can estimate with very little effort that you’d have to recover about 99.99% of the ionic liquid, which is extremely challenging.
Jim Mayer: I concur, except I know someone at a major US chemical company who is very actively pursuing a process with ionic liquids. I think they are interested in using a thin film of the ionic liquid. So generalizations can be problematic.
Joachim Ritter: It may be possible for a specialty chemical. But for a commodity chemical (that is C6 and C5 carbohydrates in this case) worth 10−15 cents a pound the math does not add up, if you consider the cost of the ionic liquid and the recovery rate needed. Again this is just an example. I’m not talking about teaching Ph.D. students to learn the trade of detailed technoeconomic analysis, but to give them the tools to develop the skills to estimate what may make economic sense. In my opinion it would foster work in more relevant areas of research. After all, we want organometallic chemists to be relevant also outside the organometallic research community. Raising awareness and applying crude but insightful models to estimate minimum cost can help develop sound judgment. There is a place for fundamental science, a place for applying fundamental science towards a practical problem in applied science. When we try to place either one of those fields in the wrong context, we lose relevance.
A bit of a digression: Inexperienced graduate students in organic chemistry will sometimes assume that mere potency is all that medicinal chemists care about. It's only after a few conversations with an actual industry medicinal chemist (or an afternoon reading In The Pipeline) that little details like patentability, bioavailability and metabolic stability will suddenly become issues that need to be addressed just as seriously as the yield and the number of steps. I think that Dr. Ritter is interested in getting those details in industry (cost, sourcing, time-yield) in front of the graduate student, so that they can calibrate themselves to where their chemistry needs to be to be relevant and 'practical.'
Wouldn't that be cool? A bit of a throwaway crosstalk between the industry chemists indicated to me the #chemjobs bonanza that a ligand synthesis Center of Excellence would be:
Jerzy Klosin: We do a lot of ligand synthesis and we have a state-of-the-art reactor high-throughput facility. However, often the limiting step is just making ligands... So there is a mismatch between screening and synthesis capabilities. We can actually screen about 200 reactions a day, but at times we can only make one or two ligands per week.Dudes! Can't you see the incredible amount of IP that could be generated by a group of 10 or 20 chemists doing this sort of work, day in and day out? These would be darn good jobs (that is, if you like the feel of a glovebox pushing against you). I hope this is still happening, but from Dr. Ritter's comments, it doesn't sound like the cost could be justified.
Joachim Ritter: I was involved with high-throughput work at Dupont about 10 years ago, and we built a facility to synthesize about 100 phosphite ligands per week under air- and moisture-free conditions. But it takes serious commitment. Ultimately, you have to recognize the immense staffing needs required to sustain such a facility.
Don't you know there's a jobs recession on? A final challenge to Professor John A. Gladysz, who organized this most excellent panel discussion and who seems to have selected the questions:
Apart from some oblique comments about the economy, why wasn't there any concern from the participants about jobs for graduate students or postdoctoral fellows? Was it assumed that most of these professor's students would become academics themselves? That this panel could not find time for the number 1 concern of ACS members is pretty disappointing.
Putting that aside, it was a fascinating discussion and a really nice way to hear different voices from the top of their field. I encourage you to read the whole thing and also to hear what See Arr Oh has to say.