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Catalysis researcher John M. Thomas dies

Cambridge scientist advanced transmission electron microscopy methods for imaging catalytic nanomaterials

by Mitch Jacoby
November 17, 2020

Photograph of John M. Thomas.
Credit: Mitch Jacoby/C&EN

Sir John Meurig Thomas, the University of Cambridge solid state chemist and specialist in catalysis and nanomaterials, died Nov. 13. He was 87.

To study catalysts and other solids, Thomas advanced the capabilities of transmission electron microscopy (TEM), an analytical tool not commonly used by chemists, especially in the 1970s when he began this work. Together with coworkers, he developed TEM-based high-resolution electron tomography methods and spectroscopy techniques, using them to reveal the structures and photophysical properties of organic crystals.

He also applied those methods and other TEM imaging techniques to analyze nanoporous materials and improve their catalytic properties. For example, his team studied palladium-ruthenium nanoparticles and other bimetallic catalysts held in the pores of silica. Such materials are effective catalysts for hydrogenating organic compounds in solvent-free reactions.

In related work, Thomas’s group designed a bifunctional catalyst for solvent-free synthesis of a nylon precursor. The catalyst eliminated the waste byproduct generated by the standard industrial process. The catalyst consists of nanoporous aluminophosphate decorated with redox-active cobalt sites and separate acidic sites containing silicon, magnesium, or zinc.

Another major thrust in Thomas’s decades-long research career was the development and analysis of single-site and single-atom heterogeneous catalysts. By maximizing the efficiency of costly metals and minimizing waste, these materials are expected to have a major impact on green chemistry and sustainability.

“It was clear from the first time I met John just how passionate he was about microscopy, chemistry, and indeed science in general,” says Paul A. Midgley of Cambridge, Thomas’s longtime scientific collaborator. Midgley adds that Thomas’s “knowledge of scientific literature was immense and his ability to recollect details of papers was remarkable.”

Thomas didn’t only talk shop, Midgley says. He also enjoyed discussing Welsh rugby or the English cricket team’s latest “collapse” against Australia. “John was an extraordinarily gifted scientist, a generous and inspiring colleague, and friend. He will be greatly missed by everyone who knew him.”

Thomas served as head of the department of physical chemistry at Cambridge in the 1980s and later as director of the Royal Institution of Great Britain and of the Davy Faraday Research Laboratory. He was knighted in 1991 by Queen Elizabeth II. From 1993–2002, he served as Master of Peterhouse, a college within the University of Cambridge.


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