#9: Professor Makoto Yamashita: Aiming for a revolution in petrochemistry using homogeneous catalysts

#9: Professor Makoto Yamashita: Aiming for a revolution in petrochemistry using homogeneous catalysts

A young chemist is introduced in interview #9 of this series. This interviewee is the youngest of all the Chem-Station interviewees thus far—please welcome Professor Makoto Yamashita. Recommended to us by Professor Kenichiro Itami in interview #2, he is a Lecturer in the Nozaki laboratory in the Department of Chemistry & Biotechnology at the Graduate School of Engineering in The University of Tokyo (note added for translated version: Professor Yamashita has been an Associate Professor in the Department of Applied Chemistry, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University since April 2011). He is a very active professor, receiving the CSJ Award for Young Chemists last year (2009) and the Banyu Chemist Award this year (2010), and is about to set off on his independent career (note added for translated version: Professor Yamashita started his independent career in 2011).

As the interview title says, he chases the big dream of “aiming for a revolution in petrochemistry using homogeneous catalysts.” Please read on to find out more about this exceptional scientist.


[su_dropcap size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap] What made you choose chemistry as a career?


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Obviously because it’s cool! Although I must say, how I perceive chemistry (or its coolness factor) has changed throughout my life, as follows:

First half of primary school: Chemist = Someone who makes new things by mixing mysterious liquids together in a flask.

Second half of primary school: After reading “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde,” I was spiritually elevated to the point of finding chemists absolutely awesome.

Junior high school: I got excited when reading about low-temperature physics and new element discoveries (in a series of Japanese books called “Blue Backs” that explain various scientific topics in everyday terms).

Senior high school: My heart was stolen away by the wonders of chemistry classes/sodium-in-water “water explosion” experiments/qualitative inorganic analysis/complex molecule synthesis/solvent extractions in organic chemistry. During that time, I choose to pursue chemistry as a career.

University: Throughout my Bachelor’s/Master’s/PhD years, the type of chemist I wanted to become changed a lot, but one thing I kept in mind was “what should I be doing right now to become a chemist in the future?”


[su_dropcap size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap]

 If you were not a chemist, what would you like to be, and why?


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Right now, if I could become whatever I want, without any conditions attached to it, I would absolutely choose to be an astronaut. There is only one reason for this—I have always wanted to head out to space. Not because the universe is mysterious or spiritual, but simply because I want to experience weightlessness and to be outside the Earth’s atmosphere. I was always interested in space. I have never made Gundam models but I have made plastic models of space shuttles. I am sure that I was influenced by a Japanese educational comic book called “The Secret of Space Shuttles and Space Travel” by the “Series of Secrets” books published by Gakken. I take advantage of the fact that I am at the University of Tokyo to go see Soichi Noguchi and Naoko Yamazaki, two Japanese astronauts, whenever they visit our institution.


In fact, I have competed to become an astronaut in 2008, but I couldn’t get past the selection ratio of 2 out of 1000 applicants. I did get to the 50/1000 mark though. I still treasure the interactions I had with the astronaut finalists, other applicants, and interviewers (who are astronauts themselves). Other than all this space stuff, I do think that being a judge or legislator would be interesting. I have yet to be called to serve as a jury member, so I would like to be called soon.


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 Currently, what kind of research are you conducting? Moreover, how do you foresee its future development?

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Ultimately, I want to develop a homogeneous catalyst that will revolutionize petrochemistry from the point of view of energy. To this end, I study boryl anion chemistry and develop new, thermally stable complexes.

In the first topic, I take boron compounds, which are often used as Lewis acids, and bind them to metals to force them to act as Lewis bases instead. Since boron-based ligands are known to be extremely electron-donating, I dream about using boron-containing complexes to functionalize the terminal C–H bonds of hydrocarbons.

In the second topic, since complexes with multidentate ligands are known to exhibit high thermal stability, they will be used to dramatically enhance known catalytic reactions and shorten the numbers of steps in a multistep catalytic reaction. Furthermore, I am envisioning the development of complex reactions that enable the selective functionalization of terminal positions of a hydrocarbon. Since these goals are so ambitious, any future development in my research laboratory will merely involve getting closer to these goals. If there is any new development, that would be when I discover something that leads to the “revolution of petrochemistry.” I do have a desire to transform coal into useful materials, so maybe one day…

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 If you could have dinner with any famous person from the past, who would it be, and why?

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Within chemists, I choose Linus Pauling, Herbert C. Brown, Geoffrey Wilkinson and John K. Stille. With Linus Pauling, I would like to talk on and on about the theory of chemical bonding because I feel that modern chemists do not have a deep understanding of chemical bonding. As for H. C. Brown, I would like to show him my developments in nucleophilic boryl anions and obtain an opinion from the great master in boron research. From what I heard, if you were a boron chemist, nucleophilic boron anions are something everybody wanted to make. Although what I made are indeed boron anions, these still have too many restrictions and therefore I want to make something that exceeds the current prototype.

Regarding Wilkinson and Stille, I would like to discuss all the developments in homogeneous catalysis that took place in the 21st century (i.e., after their passing), and after that, I would like to discuss the future possibilities of homogeneous catalysis.

In the non-chemistry disciplines, I would like to choose Isaac Newton and Carl F. Gauss. In my college days, I was realizing that the scientific foundations of modern society would not exist without them. If I could meet them, I would like them to share what they thought were problems at the time, and think of a solution together. After all, I only chose scientists, but maybe I am not too interested in “typical” historical figures.


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 When was the last time you performed an experiment in the laboratory, and what was it about?

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For synthesis, my last experiment was a Pd-catalyzed carbonylation of an organic molecule and it didn’t work at all—about 3 months ago. For analysis, I performed a single crystal X-ray structural analysis on a boron compound just yesterday.


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  If you were stranded on a desert island, which book or song/piece of music would you like to have with you? Please single out your favorite example.

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For music, maybe Helloween? Perhaps I would have chosen X-Japan 10-odd years ago. My preference for music is solely dictated by a nice dual lead guitar—something that is common to these two bands. I wanted to be popular with the girls in high school so I played the guitar back then; my ears are still used to guitar music so whenever I listen to a dual lead guitar, I separate each guitar’s sound in my head (but don’t ask me whether I was actually popular with the girls!). It is difficult to choose a book though. I would like to say “Organotransition Metal Chemistry: From Bonding to Catalysis” written by my former mentor John F. Hartwig, but I don’t really think I’ll do chemistry on a desert island, so I’ll choose written works by Professor Tatsuru Uchida (Faculty of Literature, Kobe College) to reflect upon my life and society.


[su_dropcap size=”2″]Q[/su_dropcap] Do you have any suggestions as to whom we should interview next?


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I would choose:

Professor Yoshiaki Nakao: Department of Materials Chemistry, Graduate School of Engineering, Kyoto University

Professor Atsushi Wakamiya: Division of Synthetic Chemistry, Institute for Chemical Research, Kyoto University

Professor Takashi Nakanishi: National Institute for Materials Science (NIMS)

Professor Masatake Haruta: Division of Urban Environment, Tokyo Metropolitan University (TMU)

Professor Noritaka Mizuno: Department of Applied Chemistry, Graduate School of Engineering, The University of Tokyo

Professor Atsushi Miyawaki: RIKEN Brain Science Institute

Professor Hiroshi Segawa: Institute of Industrial Science, The University of Tokyo

My first two picks are young professors that are very productive in a field similar to my field of study. I have never met Professor Nakanishi but he is a young scientist whose progress I closely follow. Professors Haruta and Mizuno are big-name players at the forefront of industrial catalysis, a field that I aspire to head into. Although Professors Miyawaki and Segawa are in a different field, these are people who got me excited about science after attending their lectures.


[su_box title=”Biographical sketch of Makoto Yamashita:”]Professor Makoto Yamashita is a Lecturer at the Department of Chemistry & Biotechnology at the Graduate School of Engineering in The University of Tokyo (note added for translated version: Professor Yamashita has been an associate professor in the Department of Applied Chemistry, Faculty of Science and Engineering, Chuo University since April 2011). After obtaining his Ph.D. from the Graduate School of Science in Hiroshima University in 2002, he obtained a JSPS research fellowship and became an Assistant at the Department of Chemistry & Biotechnology at the Graduate School of Engineering in The University of Tokyo. Since 2008, he has been a Lecturer in the same department. He received the CSJ Award for Young Chemists (2009), the Young Scientist Award from the Minister of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology (2009) and the Banyu Chemist Award (2010).[/su_box]


Japanese version written here  on Dec 29, 2010 ; English translation written on Jun 14, 2014.


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