Published: 17.11.11

Making matter from flights of fancy

At one stage, Hansjörg Grützmacher, a professor of inorganic chemistry at ETH Zurich, wanted to become an artist. Now, as a chemist, he sees a certain affinity between the two with which ideas can be realised.

Interview: Peter Rüegg
Hansjörg Grützmacher, a professor of inorganic chemistry at ETH Zurich. (Photo: courtesy of HJ Grützmacher / ETH Zurich)
Hansjörg Grützmacher, a professor of inorganic chemistry at ETH Zurich. (Photo: courtesy of HJ Grützmacher / ETH Zurich) (large view)

What do you regard as chemistry’s greatest achievement or most important discovery?
Every discovery is valuable at the time; it doesn’t necessarily get recognised, that’s all. The greatest achievement of those involved with chemistry – chemists, in other words – is that they have succeeded in transforming a secret science into a key natural science.

What do you focus on in your research and what aspects of it are evident or usable in everyday life?
We’re concerned with researching efficient synthesis methods for special chemicals. One milestone here is definitely the significantly improved synthesis of a photo-initiator at ETH Zurich that is now produced at BASF Switzerland (formerly CIBA) using this method. The initiator is used in many coating processes, such as car paint, CDs or DVDs, not to mention in medicine, such as for hardening synthetic dental fillings.

What fascinated you about chemistry? Why did you want to become a chemist?
Turning ideas, “flights of fancy”, into matter, the “products”. The only other people who do so in a similar way are artists – which is what I originally wanted to study.

Which areas of chemistry will become particularly important in future and why?
The biggest challenge will be to find reliable and efficient systems that can provide, store and consume energy. Humankind has always fought wars over resources so, unless we can make a breakthrough here, conflicts across cultural borders are inevitable. It’s also a way of handling our raw materials more sparingly, of course, but it can’t be the one we want. And the global level of education is too low to deal with this threat peacefully.

What concept from chemistry should everyone know by the end of the International Year of Chemistry and why?
Atom; molecule; matter. The understanding of one determines the understanding of the other. And it would be good if people realised and understood that there’s something new and unforeseen to be discovered for each of these concepts. Science is dynamic and needs widespread public acceptance and support.

About the person

Fifty-two-year-old Hansjörg Grützmacher has been a full professor since 2001 and currently heads the Laboratory of Inorganic Chemistry at ETH Zurich. His main research interests include organo-metallic chemistry and chemistry of the main group elements specialising in novel bond systems.