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[Summer series] Grégory Nocton - Chemistry takes up the challenge

Grégory Nocton, researcher at École Polytechnqiue’s Molecular Chemistry Laboratory, works on organometallic complexes allowing chemical transformations with low environmental impact.

©Silvère Leprovost

Coordination chemistry was brought into the spotlight in 2016 when the Nobel Prize in Chemistry was awarded to a specialist in the field. This is the discipline in which researcher Grégory Nocton  has distinguished himself among his peers at École Polytechnique and around the world.

In 2016 this young scientist from École Polytechnqiue’s Molecular Chemistry Laboratory was awarded the CNRS bronze medal, as well as a grant from the European Research Council to help promising researchers start their own research teams.

Create molecular assemblies

A branch of inorganic chemistry, coordination chemistry is concerned with molecular compounds formed from a metal center that can exchange electrons and information with the organic compounds that surround it. Grégory Nocton discovered this field, which has since become his specialty, during his Master's internship, but his interest in chemistry dates back to high school when it was the only subject that really appealed him. He relishes the almost culinary nature of the “recipes” that enable him to create compounds and colors, and better understand the world around him. After completing a BTS in chemistry, which provided him with the necessary foundations in pure and industrial chemistry, Grégory Nocton pursued his studies first at the Faculty of Reims Champagne-Ardenne, then at the CEA of Grenoble and finally at Berkeley in the United States before joining the Molecular Chemistry Laboratory at École Polytechnique in 2011.

Remarkable oxidoreduction properties

His current research focuses on organometallic complexes, composed of a metal center exchanging electrons with adjacent carbon atoms. Their remarkable redox properties allow for chemical transformations with low environmental impact and low cost. Gregory Nocton uses them to activate small polluting molecules, such as methane, in order to turn them into an alkylating agent of olefins. “Instead of burning this greenhouse gas and releasing other pollutants, our team has developed methods that could lead to recycling such polluting molecules in the form of other materials,” explains the researcher. Indeed, the products of these reactions – substituted olefins – are usually derived from petroleum and the petrochemical industry. Here they would be synthesized by recycling pollutants, thus meeting one of the founding principles of Green Chemistry: atom economy. The chemical reaction allows in this case for the recovery of a pollutant without producing waste.

Gregory Nocton cannot as of yet guarantee the results of his research. Since these organometallic complexes have never been created for this use, they could react in many ways, surprising the researcher, maybe even surpassing his highest expectations. This, however, is precisely what interests him in the scientific process. “If you know in advance what an experiment will yield, there is no interest in doing it,” he emphasizes to his students. When he was younger, this interest in exploring and experimenting earned him a reputation as a unruly child. The history of science, filled as it is with examples of discoveries linked to chance experimental outcomes, has gone far to vindicate his methodology. In this regard, Grégory Nocton likes to quote Pasteur: “Fortune favors the prepared mind.”

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Find all the portraits of researchers of our summer series, here.