Even after centuries of research in chemistry, the possible combination of elements, molecules and compounds are nowhere near exhausted.
“We’re not even close,” said Western Chemistry professor Kim Baines. “We still get excited about making a new compound which is difficult and a challenge. Then we study their reactivity and often uncover reactions that are like ‘wow.’”
Baines was recently awarded the Humboldt Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, given to academics whose fundamental discoveries, new theories and/or insights have had a significant impact on their own discipline and who are expected to continue producing cutting-edge achievements in the future.
In addition to €60,000 ($91,800 CAD), Baines has been invited to spend a period of up to one year cooperating on a long-term research project with specialist colleagues at a research institution in Germany, a powerhouse country in main group chemistry, along with Canada and Japan.
“Main group chemistry is well represented in Germany. I am excited to go there and have ongoing interactions with other leading scientists in my area,” said Baines, who hopes to be in Germany for a few months this fall. “I have wanted to do this for years. However, I never felt I could get away for extended periods of time.”
Main group chemistry focuses on elements like helium, lithium, carbon, nitrogen, silicon and germanium, among others. Those latter two elements have had Baines’ attention since she came to Western in 1988.
“I’m interested in looking at new unsaturated compounds made from silicon or germanium. By unsaturated, I mean they are deficient in electron density, so they are usually more reactive than other compounds that would be saturated. They are usually of high reactivity, and because of that, are usually difficult to isolate.”
Baines refers to her area of study as fundamental chemistry, where she creates new compounds and bonding arrangements previously unobserved.
“It was really founded on that discovery element, that advancement of knowledge,” she said. “We make new compounds, study their bonding and their reactivity, and why do we do that? We may not know at the moment, but we might be able to use them for future products.”
For example, when researchers first discovered alkene, there was no thought it could turn into a useful material. Today, it is the starting material for many plastics.
More recently, researchers use these new compounds as catalysts – those molecules that make reactions go much more quickly. This is an area of great importance in industry, since 80 per cent of chemical reactions involve a catalyst.
As one who is thrilled to be discovering new things in the lab each day, Baines is excited to work alongside some of the great minds in chemistry.
“Being a professor is the best job in the world,” she said. “We have such a variety of things we can do. And now, with this award, I get to travel to Germany. You’re always learning new things every day. I want to absorb this.”
Every year, the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation enables more than 2,000 researchers from all over the world to spend time researching in Germany. The Foundation maintains a network of well over 27,000 Humboldtians from all disciplines in more than 140 countries worldwide – including 52 Nobel Laureates. The foundation grants up to 100 Humboldt Research Awards annually.