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Guy Bertrand

Distinguished Professor of Chemistry
Guy Bertrand
Green Chemistry
Currently, companies use hydrochloric acid, a highly corrosive solution, to produce amines— nitrogen-containing organic compounds derived from ammonia that have wide industrial applications such as solvents, additives, anti-foam agents, corrosion inhibitors, detergents, dyes and bactericides. Working at the forefront of “green chemistry” advances, Professor Bertrand has discovered an inexpensive, clean and quick way to prepare amines which , produces no waste, which makes it inexpensive.

Areas of Expertise

Areas of Expertise:
  • Inorganic Chemistry
  • Organic Chemistry
  • Materials Chemistry
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Select Honors and Distinctions

  • American Association for the Advancement of Science, Chemistry (2006)
  • French Academy of Science (2004)
  • Elected at the French Academy of Technology (2000)

Research Summary

Focuses on the main group elements (group 13 to 16 in the periodical table), which lie at the border between organic, organometallic and inorganic chemistry. Bertrand uses the specific properties of main group elements, especially boron, silicon and phosphorus, to stabilize organic species.

Q&A

Q: Why is your work important? How does it benefit society?
We have been working at the forefront of “green chemistry.” We have prepared the first stable carbene, a carbon-based molecule that very few chemists believed it could be isolated. Certainly nobody thought, including myself, that some years later, that more than 200 research groups in academia and industry will use them.

Q: How soon could this research go to market?
Several of our carbenes are going to become commercially available in the next few weeks, and we have contacts with companies to scale up our catalytic processes that involve ammonia.

Q: What are the major applications of your research?
Efficient and selective preparation of organic molecules is critical for mankind. For the future, it is of paramount importance to find catalysts able to transform abundant and cheap molecules into useful compounds. Moreover, processes that occur with 100 percent atom economy are highly desirable in order to avoid waste.

We are especially interested by the preparation of nitrogen-containing compounds, which are ubiquitous in products ranging from chemical feedstocks to biologically active molecules.

Various catalysts have been found to promote the desired chemical transformations, but many limitations still remain; one of the most prominent is the use of NH3 as the amine partner. In fact, the utilization of ammonia in catalytic processes was listed among the ten greatest challenges for catalytic chemistry over a decade ago and even today examples of transition metal catalyzed functionalization of NH3 are rare. The importance of this challenge is readily understandable since more than 100 million metric tons of NH3 are produced per year, and the production of nitrogen-containing compounds is similarly huge. We have recently found the first catalysts, which are able to perform several different chemical transformations with ammonia as a reagent.

Q: What is the ultimate goal of your research? What challenges are left to achieve?
My newest project is to demonstrate that non-metals can promote chemical transformations, which are believed to be only possible using precious metals. This research could have tremendous impacts on the environment, but also on the cost of bulk chemicals as well as pharmaceuticals.

Q: How would you define the importance of teaching?
When I was in France, I was teaching both at the Ecole Polytechnique at Palaiseau (one of the elite schools in France) and at night at an Institution for adults. I enjoyed both, but I believe that for extremely bright students, the instructor is much less important than for people that learn with difficulty. For the latter, you have this wonderful feeling of being useful. In the U.S., teaching first or second year students at the university is really a lot of fun. The barrier between the professors and the students is almost non-existent, and I like it. My aim here is to make chemistry as attractive as possible for every student. My great pleasure is to see some of the students majoring in biology change their mind and become chemistry majors!

Q: What advice do you have for students graduating in the next five years?
I have a lot of discussions with my undergraduate students. Many of them are thinking about their future job in terms of making money. I always try to make them realizing that they will spend at work a large proportion of their life, and the only way to handle long hours in his office is to enjoy his job.

Q: If you had unlimited resources and no constraints, how would you spend your money?
Clearly most of the funding would go to fundamental research, but restricted to brand new approaches. Just like high-risk venture capital companies, I believe that one important discovery would pay off. I would also spend quite a lot of money for publicizing science and scientific jobs. I strongly believe that the general public does not always understand the importance of science in their day-to-day life. Who knows how computers or the Internet works, how new drugs or materials are discovered?
Guy Bertrand “What can be more exciting than to have a tiny contribution to the welfare improvement of humanity?”

—Guy Bertrand
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