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ACS Award For Creative Work In Fluorine Chemistry

Recipients are honored for contributions of major significance to chemistry

by Michael McCoy
February 2, 2009 | APPEARED IN VOLUME 87, ISSUE 5

Credit: Courtesy of Henry Selig
Credit: Courtesy of Henry Selig

Sponsored by SynQuest Laboratories and Honeywell

Although most of Henry Selig's career has been devoted to fluorine chemistry, he is, in fact, something of an accidental fluorine chemist.

Selig, 81, was born in Germany, but in 1939, when he was just 11, he and his family were forced to flee the country. They ended up in Chicago, where Selig attended Herzl Junior College and the University of Chicago, earning bachelor's degrees in chemistry and mathematics.

After completing a master's in chemistry at the University of Chicago, Selig went on to what is now Carnegie Mellon University to earn a Ph.D. in nuclear chemistry under Truman P. Kohman. His next stop was a logical destination for an up-and-coming young nuclear chemist: Argonne National Laboratory.

At Argonne, Selig worked for six years on a classified project for the Atomic Energy Commission. On the side, he embarked on the study of rhenium-187, an isotope he expected to have an extremely long half-life. "To study the radioactivity, we had to convert it to a gas," he recalls. The possibilities were few, so after one false start with an organorhenium compound, Re(CH3)3, Selig and his colleagues settled on the synthesis of the volatile ReF6.

Something seemed fishy, however, and they soon discovered that in the process they had also made ReF7, a previously unknown compound. Inauspiciously, in late 1959, Selig's life in fluorine chemistry had begun.

For the next 35 years, Selig was a leader in the field. His many accomplishments include the 1962 synthesis of XeF4, just months after chemist Neil Bartlett created one of the first noble gas compounds. Selig also helped pioneer the field of intercalation chemistry with breakthroughs such as the discovery that AsF5 can intercalate into graphite, resulting in a compound with phenomenal electrical conductivity.

At the urging of his Israeli wife, Selig left Argonne in 1967 and moved to Hebrew University of Jerusalem. There, he continued his groundbreaking work in fluorine chemistry, reacting oxides in anhydrous hydrogen fluoride and creating synthetic metals. His later work included the fluorination of buckminsterfullerene in pursuit of the elusive C60F60.

Selig retired in 1995 at the age of 68, in keeping with Hebrew University policy, but he continued to work in the lab on his own for a number of years. Even today, he still stops by the chemistry department to keep up with the literature.

Karl O. Christe, a professor at Loker Research Institute at University of Southern California, in Los Angeles, has known Selig for 40 years and considers him "one of the most underrated scientists and the most underrated fluorine chemist I know."

Another colleague, Gary J. Schrobilgen, a chemistry professor at McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, says Selig's accomplishments are all the more impressive because his research group at Hebrew University was always relatively small. Schrobilgen calls Selig "not only the real chemical thinker behind the first synthesis of XeF4 but a guiding chemical mind" behind much of the other fluorine work that came out of Argonne in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Indeed, although Selig accomplished much in the subsequent years, he looks back fondly on those early days at Argonne when fluorine chemistry was seen as a dangerous field that few would venture into. "It was a great job," he recalls. "You did what you liked and even got paid for it."

Selig will present the award address before the Division of Fluorine Chemistry.



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