Kids’ University in Search of Gold

9 07 2008
Prof. Stephen Hashmi of the Institute of Organic Chemistry, University of Heidelberg tells his mini-students how he teases a whole lot of secrets out of the precious metal
“I love gold,” is a quote with which Prof. Stephen Hashmi of Heidelberg University is fond of closing his academic lectures. It goes back to Professor Ito, a Japanese gold chemist. This declaration of love has less to do with the value of the precious metal than with its chemical properties. Hashmi has found out that the presence of gold in certain chemical reactions makes them happen much quicker and with less energy input. Experts call this process catalysis and in it gold plays the role of catalyst. “The ratio of the catalyst to the newly emerging compounds can be anything up to 1:1,000,000,” says Hashmi to illustrate how little gold is necessary to trigger catalysis.

Stephen Hashmi is a veritable pioneer in the sphere of catalysis with soluble gold compounds. Until well into the 1990s there were only a handful of scientific publications on this subject. Stephen Hashmi chanced on gold as a catalyst when he was looking for an alternative to palladium or silver for certain reactions. Since then a genuine glut of publications on catalysis with gold has materialised. “In 2000 there were exactly three publications on the subject,” the chemist reports, “whereas today there are about 200 a year, now that other research groups have discovered gold.”

Stephen Hashmi’s scientific preoccupation with the precious metal has prompted him to become quite a collector of all kinds of things associated with it. In his study there is a little “shrine” full of objects connected with gold. There are various books on the subject, including Ralf Hahn’s study of the research done by Nobel Prize laureate Fritz Haber, who attempted to extract gold from the ocean. “There is indeed a great deal of gold in the oceans of the world,” says Stephen Hashmi. “But it is so heavily diluted that it is not worth trying to get it out.” The chemist does not have any gold nuggets in his shrine, but there is a large clump of yellow mica, known in German as “cat gold”. His listeners at the Kids’ University can be sure that he’ll be telling them why that is the case.

The golden statuette Stephen Hashmi brought back from his travels to India reminds him of his Indian forbears. His father emigrated from India to Bavaria in 1958. Accordingly, the young Stephen studied and did his doctorate in Munich. “Then I moved around a lot,” he tells us. Stanford, Berlin, Frankfurt, Tasmania and Stuttgart are only a few of the stopovers that have punctuated the chemist’s scientific career. In April of last year he finally arrived in Heidelberg, where he now holds the chair of organic chemistry.
Stefan Zeeh

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