Issue Date: February 21, 2011
ACS Award For Creative Advances In Environmental Science & Technology
François M. M. Morel entered the world of chemistry during his first semester as a Ph.D. engineering student at California Institute of Technology. “I took a course in aquatic chemistry from Jim Morgan at the same time that I was taking a course in numerical analysis. I told Jim we could write computer programs to solve many of the chemistry problems he gave us as problem sets,” Morel recalls. “And so we did. Then, gradually, I learned some chemistry.”
Morel learned enough chemistry, as well as biology, to write “Principles of Aquatic Chemistry” in 1983, considered by his colleague Thomas G. Spiro, now at the University of Washington, to be a “bible in the field.” Morel’s work is “at the cutting edge of water chemistry and biogeochemistry, and provides an essential basis for informed environmental decision making,” says Spiro.
Prior to his introduction to aquatic chemistry, Morel earned degrees in applied mathematics and engineering from the University of Grenoble, in France. He received a Ph.D. from Caltech in 1971. After a fellowship at Caltech in environmental engineering, he took a position as an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, ultimately rising to full professor.
While at MIT, Morel became a pioneer in the study of thermodynamics and kinetics of trace-metal speciation in natural waters. He devised a program for modeling chemical equilibria in complex systems that has served as a basis for the Environmental Protection Agency’s MINTEQ program, an equilibrium speciation model.
Morel’s most important research contributions, Spiro believes, are the discovery that complexation reactions can be exceedingly slow in natural waters despite the inherently fast kinetics of the underlying reaction steps and the demonstration of photocycling of trace metals, particularly iron and mercury, in sunlit surface waters. In addition, Morel devised thermodynamic models of adsorption that include the “surface precipitation model” for the transition between the adsorption of solutes and their precipitation.
Morel’s work has included the study of marine microorganisms. “I was always interested in biology and it seemed to me that the most interesting aspect of the chemistry of natural waters is the way it affected aquatic organisms and the way aquatic organisms affected it,” Morel says.
“He studied and modeled how microorganisms take up both toxic and essential metals, and showed that acquisition of trace elements by microorganisms in the ocean is ultimately limited by the kinetics of diffusion and chemical reactions with uptake molecules,” Spiro says.
When he discovered the only known cadmium enzyme, present in marine diatoms, Morel showed the importance of metal replacement for organisms growing in the open ocean, where the concentrations of essential metals are vanishingly low.
In 1994, Morel moved to Princeton University as a professor of geosciences. His research group is now studying how climate-change-driven ocean acidification affects phytoplankton, the primary biomass producers that are at the base of almost all marine ecosystems.
Morel, 66, has been awarded the prestigious Maurice Ewing Medal of the American Geophysical Union, as well as the C. C. Patterson Medal of the Geochemical Society. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 2009.
Morel will present the award address before the Division of Environmental Chemistry.
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