Prof Vernon C. Gibson FRS


Vernon Gibson was educated at The Kings School Grantham (where Sir Isaac Newton preceded him more than 300 years earlier) and entered Sheffield University to study Chemistry in 1977.  He graduated with a 1st Class Special Honours degree in 1980 along with the R.D. Haworth Medal for finishing top of the degree class list. It was during a final year research project at Sheffield in the laboratories of Prof. Peter Maitlis FRS that his interest was sparked in compounds bordering the traditional areas of organic and inorganic chemistry, and so began a long fascination with the chemistry and applications of so-called organometallic complexes.

After graduating from Sheffield he transferred to the University of Oxford to study for a D.Phil in organometallic chemistry in the group of Prof. Malcolm Green FRS. His thesis studies ranged widely over coordination and organometallic chemistry, from metal vapour synthesis (MVS) of transition metal compounds, through synthesis and reactivity studies on quadruply-bonded dimers of molybdenum, to carbon-hydrogen bond activation using molecular organometallic complexes.

After completing his studies at Oxford he was awarded a NATO postdoctoral fellowship to work with Prof. John Bercaw at the California Institute of Technology where, among other things, he developed a model system for studying the hydrocarbon chain-lengthening process in the Fischer-Tropsch reaction, now attracting renewed interest because of its importance for the conversion of coal to oil.

By the time of his first academic appointment he had become inspired by the power of metal-based initiators to control the microstructures of organic polymeric materials. It was during his first academic appointment as a lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry at the University of Durham (1986) that he developed novel metathesis catalysts in collaboration with Prof. W.J. Feast FRS and Prof. R.R. Schrock (MIT, Nobel Laureate) and saw at first hand the potential of olefin metathesis to access novel types of organic conducting materials. His group made internationally recognised contributions to the use of well-defined and living organometallic catalysts to control the microstructures of various poly(norbornene) and poly(norbornadiene) materials. More generally in this period his group studied structure and bonding patterns in metal-ligand fragments which allowed him to exploit the isolobal relationship to design new catalysts for alkene polymerisation.

In 1995, he moved to Imperial College to a Chair of Polymer Chemistry and Catalysis where, in a close collaboration with BP, his attention turned in earnest to the discovery of well-defined catalysts for the production of polyolefins such as polyethylene and polypropylene, the world's largest volume commodity plastics. In the late 1990s his group, along with Brookhart’s group in the US, independently discovered a family of iron- and cobalt-based catalysts (Brookhart-Gibson catalysts) with commercially relevant activities for the polymerisation and oligomerisation of ethene. Since Ziegler’s Nobel Prize-winning discovery of metal catalysed alkene polymerisation in the 1950s, iron systems had been singled out (by Ziegler) to be incapable of catalysing the polymerisation of alkenes. The discovery of a remarkably active iron catalyst system changed thinking around the design of late transition metal catalysts for alkene polymerisation and signposted the way forward for further advances using late transition metal systems, a number of which were developed in the Gibson group. A surprising outcome was the finding that iron catalysts can catalyse the efficient growth of polythene chains at zinc metal centres (via a chain transfer process) and facilitate the living growth of polythene chains. This so-called ‘chain shuttling’ reaction using zinc is now being developed for commercial exploitation by Dow Chemicals in the production of  polyolefin copolymers. Catalysts based on numerous early, mid and late transition metals were also discovered and developed in the Gibson group during this phase of research. Later, he directed his work on iron-based systems towards the discovery of new catalysts for controlled radical polymerisation and found that the catalytic pathway was dependent upon the spin state of the metal centre, the first time such an effect had been observed outside a biological system.  

For the period 2001-2008 he occupied the Sir Edward Frankland BP Chair of Inorganic Chemistry at Imperial which was previously the established Chair of Inorganic Chemistry held by the Nobel Laureate, Prof. Sir Geoffrey Wilkinson. His research interests broadened to main group metal systems for the polymerisation of methylmethacrylate to polmethylmethacrylate (Perspex) as well as for the ring-opening polymerisation of lactide to the new commodity biorenewable material, polylactic acid (PLA).  For controlled acrylate polymerisation he developed a well-defined initiator system based on a magnesium enolate in which the active site was stabilised by a bulky beta-diketiminato ligand. This afforded an unprecedented level of control over the syndiotactic content of the product, the highest recorded under industrially operable conditions for a polyacrylate. In the case of PLA, aluminium initiatiors were found to impart remarkable stereocontrol, facilitating access to materials with high iso- or hetero-tactic contents depending upon the nature of the ligand substituents. These advances led to the founding of a spin-out company, Plaxica, for the commercial production of polylactic acid.

Since joining BP his research interests have diversified to address the challenges of Energy Sustainability and Climate Change, and the nexus of food, energy and water.