York chemistry professor awarded prestigious Polanyi Prize

York University Chemistry Professor Christopher Caputo is among five university researchers in Ontario who have been recognized with a 2018 Polanyi Prize. The award recipients were announced on Tuesday.

photo of Dr. Christopher Caputo

Christopher Caputo

Caputo is an assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry in the Faculty of Science and a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair at York University. He received the Polanyi Prize in Chemistry.

How can we remove precious metals from the manufacturing process for plastics, pharmaceuticals and other industrial products? Caputo’s research aims to do so − and make production less expensive and more sustainable.

The reliance on precious metals such as palladium, platinum and rhodium to act as catalysts in industrial processes and energy production is a major problem, since they are highly rare and hugely expensive. In fact, these metals are so rare on Earth that serious consideration has been given to space projects to mine asteroids for them.

Caputo’s research focuses on how to use “main group” chemicals – common, non-metal elements such as boron and phosphorous − to take their place as catalysts. This means manipulating them to create molecules that can mimic the high reactivity of precious metals.

The project needs to overcome the obstacles that make it difficult to form the kind of main-group molecules that can act as catalysts; one is their high sensitivity to air and water, making it necessary to synthesize novel molecules that remain stable in these conditions. The research into these new molecules is designed to lead to cheaper, alternative catalytic processes that will boost the economy and help lead to more sustainable industries.

In addition to Caputo, other innovative and groundbreaking research recognized this year includes work to help breast cancer patients beat the ill-effects of chemotherapy and radiation on the heart and devising statistical models to evaluate teachers more accurately.

“This year’s Polanyi Prize winners are outstanding examples of how fundamental research contributes to Ontario’s economy and quality of life,” said David Lindsay, president and CEO of the Council of Ontario Universities. “The research and innovation taking place every day on university campuses brings enormous benefits in terms of jobs and social progress and is helping to create a better future for students, our communities, and the province.”

“It is an honour to recognize and celebrate the 2018 winners of the Polanyi Prize. Polanyi Prize winners represent some of the best researchers across Ontario universities,” said Dr. Merrilee Fullerton, Ontario’s minister of training, colleges and universities. “Their successes help better the lives of the people in our province and boost Ontario’s reputation as a leader in research.”

The Polanyi Prizes are awarded each year to innovative researchers who are either continuing postdoctoral work or have recently gained a faculty appointment. Each of this year’s winners will receive $20,000 in recognition of their exceptional research in the fields of chemistry, physics, economic science and physiology/medicine.

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