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Life in the Polymer Age - An interview with Dr. Michael Londesborough

Dr. Londesborough is an ardent scientist who doesn’t hesitate to share his love and enthusiasm and does it in a way that doesn’t leave even the most passive audiences apathetic toward the world of chemistry.

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Dr. Michael Londesborough is a British scientist working in the Institute of Chemistry at the Czech Academy of Science. In addition to his research activities in the fields of physics and chemistry, he dedicates a substantial amount of time to popularizing science and bringing it closer to the general population. For this reason, he regularly appears on television screens. PORT, a popular scientific weekly broadcast by Czech Television with news and attractions from various scientific, technological and social fields, presents a program that is prepared and hosted by Dr. Londesborough called Michael’s Experiments. He has had significant success in this area and was even the recipient of the Vojtěch Náprstek Medal for popularizing science by the Czech Academy of Sciences in 2009.

I sat down with this influential scientist in order to get to know him a bit better, pick his brain about the future of scientific innovation and find out what new projects he is currently working on.

You are originally from England. How long have you lived in Czech Republic and why did you move here?

I came to Czech in 2002. At that time I was a young man… I was 21 and in love with boron-hydride chemistry. For that reason, I was reading a lot of articles on the topic. That’s how I got acquainted with the work Czech scientists were doing in this area and their cooperation with scientists in England. The beginning stages of research into boron-hydride chemistry in the Czech Republic were very secretive and for that reason even more intriguing for me. You could say that love brought me to the Czech Republic-love for boron-hydride chemistry and love for research into their properties.

I understand that you’re currently working at the Institute of Inorganic chemistry at the Czech Academy of Science. Why did you choose this institution in particular?

My decision was influenced by my relationship with the world of boron-hydrides. There’s a group of research scientists at the research center in Řež u Prahy who hold a significant position in the world of boron hydride chemistry. Collaborating with them is very valuable, interesting and enriching for me. On top of that, my former team lead from university in Leeds works with us. That’s another reason I am here. Here I am able to do research into boron hydride properties full time and that’s exactly what I want to be doing.

Why did you decide to study chemistry when you were young, and why chemistry specifically?

Science has been an inseparable part of my life from a young age primarily thanks to my family. Both my uncle and my godfather worked in science fields and my father took genuine interest in science as well. We often watched the scientific documentary program Horizon on BBC together. I also liked going to school and was very interested in natural sciences. Even back then I realized that thanks to science I am  able to influence my world and surrounding environment. I chose chemistry specifically because of my chemistry teacher. He was a very enthusiastic man whose lectures, filled with genuine love and passion, made chemistry a truly exhilarating subject to study.

And what do you find fascinating about boron hydride chemistry in particular?

I am excited by creating new molecules, revealing their structures, exploring their properties, and trying to exploit these properties for innovative means.  For example, in my lab in Řež at the Institute of inorganic Chemistry, Czech Academy of Sciences, I synthesize new molecules containing atoms of boron and hydrogen.  These atoms organise themselves into beautiful polyhedral cluster structures.  They smell a bit funny, but otherwise they are wonderful.  With the help of other colleagues, I can then examine how these new molecules (that do not exist anywhere else…perhaps in the whole Universe) behave when exposed to various forms of electromagnetic radiation – visible light, UV, IR, X-ray, etc.  These spectroscopic techniques reveal to me the structure and properties of the new molecules.  Here it is important to have an overview of how other molecular systems work and perform in order to understand whether or not your new molecules have an innovative or competitive advantage.  Recently, I published the first example of a boron hydride laser.  It has a beautiful blue emission of light, and it is very photostable in comparison to most other, commercially available, blue laser materials.  This means that it can be used for a long time before it being necessary to replace – a valuable innovation.

As the boron hydrides are a new group of compounds (they do not occur naturally on our planet…we must make them), with unique structures, they have a great potential for innovations in many fields.  In the labs where I work, I am concentrating on innovations in luminescence and optics, and my colleagues are achieving great results in innovations in surface technology and medicine using similar boron hydride clusters.

It’s clear that you place a lot of faith in boron hydrides. Can you enlighten me about the role that these molecules currently play in our lives? And what potential do you see in their future?

My beloved boron hydrides are full of potential because their molecules are full of chemical potential.  This means that each molecule has lots of electromagnetic energy within its structures that it can ‘use’ to perform chemical reactions.  In this regard the carbon hydrides (or hydrocarbons, as they are more commonly known) are the same.  Nature, through the miracle of photosynthesis, has stored thousands or millions of years of solar energy in the form of chemical energy with the hydrocarbons.  Our societies have developed large petrochemical industries that resource and develop these very precious chemicals.  One of the main uses of all this chemical energy is to simply burn it (oxidation) to transform the chemical energy into mechanical energy (cars, trains and airplanes) or electrical energy.  However, the hydrocarbons are capable of much more!  For example, we can do many interesting chemical transformations with the available chemicals, and these lead to things such as pharmaceuticals and polymers.  Polymers are particularly interesting long chain-like molecules that have varying properties depending on the original molecules you use in their production.  We are currently living in a ‘polymer age’ in which our growing understanding of the chemistry and physics of polymers (new and old) has fostered our capacity to replace many traditional materials (such as glass, wood, and metal) with polymers.  This has many benefits in terms of cost, new functionalities, and savings of resources; however, it also brings new challenges, such as plastic waste.  My belief is that we (us scientists and the petrochemical industry) must work together to boost the advantages and solve the problems.

Could you give me a couple examples of some current, exciting innovations being worked on today that have meaningful implications for the future?

The future will necessarily bring forth innovations in the ways we feed ourselves, how we work, how we transport ourselves, and how we treat of our environment if we are to sustain growing populations with growing economic prosperity.  I think that we will see very soon large scale application of electro mobility and the principle of vehicle sharing rather than ownership.  Coupled with this innovation in cars, will be a new network of high-speed trains.  Many routine, pattern-identification tasks will be done by algorithms and robots, leading to huge increases in efficiency.  The ‘internet-of-everything’ will allow all of us to make almost every aspect of our lives more efficient.  Advances in molecular biochemistry, biosensors, and genetics will revolutionize how we treat disease and aging.  Medicine will become more personalized and designed for individuals.  And we shall see many new materials – thin films, nanotubes, 2-dimensional graphene sheets, new polymers, etc. – come into use.  These materials will offer many new possibilities in construction, housing, electronics, displays, and much more.  Generally speaking, as our scientific understanding increases, we are able to operate at increasingly smaller scales and dimensions, and consequently our materials will be stronger, lighter, smarter, and more efficient.

What are some new projects that you are currently working on?

I am currently leading a research project with the objective to develop our recent discovery of the first boron hydride laser.  I am investigating the details of the system in an attempt to optimize performance.  I am (or rather my colleagues and I – this is no one man show) also integrating our boron hydride molecular systems into polymer matrices to generate thin polymer films that do all sorts of interesting things with light, such as absorbing across a large range of frequencies and then emitting the light at a single wavelength.  Such properties are useful for solar concentrators.

I am also proud to have recently become an ambassador for Unipetrol.  I have a great deal of respect for hydrocarbon chemistry, and Unipetrol is an organization that does an incredible amount in this area

In terms of the very close future, I shall be participating in this year’s REACTIONS conference which will focus on the way advancements in the world of chemistry enable and facilitate innovations. 

I am interested in finding out why you have chosen to be an ambassador specifically for Unipetrol? What is the connection for you?

I would like to be a part of a growing sophistication with which we use our hydrocarbon resources.  This includes the development of a diverse range of new polymer materials and other products available from the petrochemical industry.  I am also highly appreciative of the way Unipetrol engages with many schools and students around the Czech Republic, and I am very happy to help in these efforts.  I have devoted a lot of time to science popularization and public engagement over my career, and therefore this is a common interest that I have with Unipetrol.  We both believe in the necessity to be proactive with students and encourage and nurture their beginning steps into technological and scientific fields. 

Could you tell me a little bit more about you participation in the REACTIONS conference? What can we look forward?

The theme of REACTIONS 2018 will be innovation in the automobile industry and new opportunities for manufacturers that will increase their competitive edge. I will participate mainly as a co-moderator, along with Eve Smetana who moderated the conference last year. I will also give a presentation on the theme Leadership of Tomorrow. The conference will take place October 11th at the Forum Karlín in Prague. It’s going to be a truly remarkable and noteworthy even that I am very much looking forward to.

I will be looking forward as well! Thank you for your time and an interesting interview.

Not long after this interview, I had the opportunity to watch Dr. Londesborough’s presentation at Innovation Week 2018 at the Prague Forum Karlin and see the more interesting, fun and attractive side of chemistry with my own eyes. Hearing him talk about science and chemistry with so much passion and enthusiasm left no doubt in my mind that these subjects hold a special place in his heart. Simply put, Dr. Londesborough is an ardent scientist who doesn’t hesitate to share his love and enthusiasm and does it in a way that doesn’t leave even the most passive audiences apathetic toward the world of chemistry. I trust that his example will attract an abundance of new students and future influential scientists. And even for those of us who have already settled on a career path, it’s wonderful to see all the interesting and compelling things that are happening in the world of science that might otherwise remain quite foreign to us.

- Josefína Chalupová