2008 Winner: Outstanding Leadership In Alberta Science
Internationally Renowned Chemist Sees Long-Term Results
“Had I not come to Alberta I wouldn’t have researched sulphur chemistry at all,” says Dr. Tristam Chivers, faculty professor ad professor emeritus in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Calgary.
That would have been a missed opportunity for Alberta’s sour gas and petrochemical industries and for the main group chemistry world.
Dr. Chivers has been described as the “godfather” of main group chemistry. He is widely considered to be Canada’s most distinguished researcher and one of the world elite in this broad area of research. He has made significant contributions to applications of this branch of chemistry to Alberta’s sour gas and petrochemical industries. And much of his work is still to yield results.
“As a chemist, my goals are long term. What one does today doesn’t necessarily have immediate impact,“ Dr. Chivers explains. “I make new compounds that are precursors to useful materials. You have to appreciate the timescale from the fundamental discovery to application could be 10 to 15 years.”
He describes a major discovery he made in the 1980s – a process to convert hydrogen sulphide directly to hydrogen and sulphur, important for the sour gas industry to recover both hydrogen and suphur from industrial processes. Dr. Chivers points out that in spite of considerable interest, the discovery has yet to be developed on an industrial level because of economic considerations.
Dr. Chivers wrote a book about sulphur nitrogen compounds called A Guide to Chalcogen-Nitrogen Chemistry, which he considers one of the areas in which he and his team made a major contribution. He talks about combining sulphur, which is an insulator, and nitrogen, which is a gas, into one molecule. They produce a conducting polymer.
“That was a remarkable observation,” he says. “It played a pivotal role in providing understanding that the combination of the two elements leads to a compound with metallic properties.”
Discoveries such as this that interrupt the routine of the laboratory, motivate Dr. Chivers to keep working. He also values the stimulation that comes from the interaction he has with his many students.
“I like the excitement of sharing discoveries with these extremely bright young people,” he says. “I liken it to getting to the top of a mountain and seeing a view you didn’t expect and sharing that.”
Dr. Chivers recently co-authored his second book, which is intended for senior graduate students. It’s called Inorganic Rings and Polymers of the p-Block Elements: From Fundamentals to Applications. The book is based on Dr. Chivers’ 40 years of research experience in the chemistry of inorganic ring systems.