Dr. Paul G. Hayes completed his Ph.D. under the tutelage of Prof. Warren Piers at the University of Calgary. In 2004 he undertook an NSERC Postdoctoral Fellowship in the laboratories of Prof. T. Don Tilley. He joined the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Lethbridge in 2006 and is currently an Associate Professor and Alberta Ingenuity New Faculty. Research in the Hayes research group involves synthetic and mechanistic organometallic chemistry with a particular focus on the development of new chemical transformations and catalysis.
I have been interested in chemistry for as long as I can recall. In fact, before I began school, or had any real idea what one does, I would frequently declare that someday I would become a scientist. As a small child I spent summers at my family’s cottage in Cape Breton, Nova Scotia. During this time, I was fascinated by all types of science, but was particularly awestruck by the chemical reaction that fireflies use to light up their bodies. I also spent many hours around our evening campfires watching as one form of matter was converted into another. I would imagine new and marvellous types of chemical reactions that I wanted to discover. Even to this day, I find that gazing into a campfire spurs creativity.
My first real involvement in cutting edge Chemistry research came when I was a second year undergraduate student at Mount Allison University. Prof. Steve Westcott, from whom I was taking an Inorganic Chemistry course, offered me a research position in his laboratory. As soon as I made my first new molecule, I was hooked. I was immediately attracted to the idea of making novel types of chemical compounds to study unusual and exciting types of reactivity, especially if these were molecules that others thought were impossible to prepare.
I am a synthetic chemist. Simply put, this means I make new molecules. These molecules are generally designed for a specific purpose. Frequently the objective is to make a molecule capable of performing a specific chemical transformation. Sometimes the goal is to make a molecule that will render it possible to create new materials. And sometimes the aim is as straightforward as trying to overcome the challenge of preparing a novel chemical compound which is somehow unusual or which chemists have previously thought could not be made. Overall, though, the underlying theme of my research program is to create unique metal containing molecules for new chemical reactions and catalysis.
Catalysts are merely molecules that are able to convert one chemical into another, without themselves being consumed or altered. Catalysts are inherently “green” as they lower the energy requirements for a chemical reaction, thereby dramatically increasing the rate of that reaction while simultaneously enabling the chemistry to be performed under much more mild experimental conditions (e.g. lower temperature or pressure). These changes are valuable because of their significant impact on economic viability, commercialization and safety. In addition, catalysis is particularly desirable from environmental and financial perspectives since each catalyst molecule converts many equivalents of starting material into product, thus greatly enhancing the cost-effectiveness of a given procedure.
One area of catalysis that my group has been particularly successful in is the preparation of new materials that are both biodegradable and biocompatible. Specifically, we prepare catalysts that are capable of polymerizing lactide. Polylactide is an exciting material because it possesses similar properties to the plastics that surround us everywhere, and its synthetic precursors can be found in inexpensive renewable resources, such as beets and corn. The resultant polylactide polymers are environmentally friendly, biodegradable and biologically compatible, which make them ideally suited for applications such as food packaging, as matrices for the slow release of pharmaceuticals, and as scaffolds for tissue regeneration.
Another direction of my laboratory focuses upon the development of catalysts for converting the abundant supply of hydrocarbons into useful organic compounds. Hydrocarbons, as the name suggests, are molecules that are composed only of carbon and hydrogen, and notably for Alberta, they are a by-product of the petrochemical industry. This is particularly challenging; however, because such molecules are extremely inert. As a result, these chemicals generally find uses limited to combustion: burning natural gas to heat homes (e.g. methane), cooking food on a propane BBQ, fluid in a butane lighter, or consuming gasoline (e.g. octane) to propel an automobile. While this obviously serves a crucial purpose, these processes are inefficient and contribute to the production of greenhouse gases and global warming. Thus, the preparation of catalysts that can directly utilize hydrocarbons as their carbon source is incredibly important as this has the promise to be an efficient and cost-effective route to organic molecules that have utility in materials, agricultural and pharmaceutical industries. These industries affect every Canadian; thus, the ability to improve production efficiencies will result in a decrease in cost, thereby rendering many resources available to those who could not previously afford them. Furthermore, this chemistry is likely to provide technologies that are completely novel or which until now have remained beyond the realm of economic viability.
Thus far in my career the greatest honour I have received is the 2010 Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations (CAFA) Distinguished Academic Early Career Award. This award “recognizes a faculty member at an early stage of his or her career, who through his or her research and/or scholarly, creative or professional activity has made an outstanding contribution to the wider community beyond the university.” It is given annually to 1 or 2 faculty members from the University of Alberta, Athbasca University or the University of Lethbridge. It is particularly meaningful since the award committee was comprised of my peers and there were numerous outstanding and deserving candidates.
Both undergraduate and graduate students are absolutely essential to the success of my research program, which is why they are always included as coauthors on publications. Synthetic chemistry is extremely time intensive, and as a result, many individuals are required to perform the necessary reactions. Thus, students and postdoctoral fellows perform the vast majority of the hands-on work. Since running a laboratory is very expensive and there are numerous safety protocols that must be developed and adhered to, I spend the majority of my time training students, writing grant applications to secure external funding, managing financial and personnel issues, and disseminating results by publishing manuscripts in international journals and giving research presentations. Ultimately, the complexity of operating a sophisticated laboratory renders it impossible to accomplish significant gains without the invaluable work performed by students.
If I had access to unlimited funds, I would dedicate more time toward fundamental research, that which does not have an immediately obvious “practical application”. Science is a progressive industry which gradually builds upon the foundation of knowledge that is laid by fundamental research. If this crucial link is removed from the chain, the entire technology pyramid collapses, and before long there is no so-called “applied” research to do or technology ready to bring forward for commercialization. For example, the first physicists to study conductivity did not plan to make an i7 quad core processor for a laptop, nor is it likely they could even imagine the idea of a modern computer. But that is not relevant. Nor is it relevant that mathematicians who developed chaos theory did not know that pure math might someday be used to help assess the risk of a tornado forming under a given set of circumstances. Yet, without that vital fundamental research, these technological discoveries would not have been possible.
Unfortunately, though, securing funding for fundamental, curiosity-driven research is extremely difficult, and with provincial and federal governments continuously allocating greater proportions of such funds toward “strategically focused research areas”, is becoming increasingly more so. Thus, if given the opportunity I would devote a greater fraction of my research program to studying new and unusual molecules in order to better understand the fundamental reactions that occur at metal centres. These efforts contribute to a greater understanding of catalysis and given the role that new reaction pathways play in the production of value-added chemicals, materials and pharmaceuticals, the development of new catalysts is essential.