Yves Chauvin, one of the “metathesis greats,” passed away on January 27, 2015 at the age of 84. Winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 2005, Chauvin was a key player in proposing the metallacyclobutane intermediate of the generally accepted metathesis mechanism that serves as the foundation for the design of the carbene pre-catalysts we use today.
During his 35-year career at the Institut Français du Pétrol, he noticed that there was not much activity amongst French researchers on coordination chemistry, organometallics or homogeneous catalysts by transition metals. His fascination with the developments in the field led him to “unwittingly become the French specialist in these disciplines.” It was in this role that he developed two new homogeneous catalysis processes – Dimersol, using a nickel-based catalyst, and Alphabuterol, using a titanium-based catalyst.
In 1971, Chauvin and fellow researcher Jean-Louis Hérisson at the Institut Français du Pétrol published an article in Makromol. Chem. proposing the formation of a metallacyclobutane by the reaction of an alkylidene and an olefin. The mechanistic proposal for olefin metathesis was one of a series of proposals that appeared in the literature during that time, but many of the others have been disproven. Chauvin’s findings in this paper led to further developments by Robert Grubbs and Richard Schrock and, ultimately, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.
In his Nobel Lecture, Chauvin admitted that he “often regretted” not pursuing a Ph.D. but also noted the benefit that “your mind is free to focus on whatever presents itself” and valued his joint efforts with Ph.D. scientists over the years. A self-proclaimed “self-taught” researcher, Chauvin stressed the importance of both fundamental and applied research and the “need for absolute solidarity between the research lab and the ‘downstream’ side” encompassing the industrial and commercial aspects of important processes. Together they share the “same enthusiasm, same determination, especially when everything goes wrong!” he wrote.
Materia CEO Michael Giardello commented that he “had the pleasure to meet Chauvin in 2005 during Nobel week. He made important contributions early on to the mechanism and initial understanding of olefin metathesis.” As practitioners of olefin metathesis, we have all benefited from Chauvin’s scientific contributions to the field as well as his insights into the connections between academia and industry. Prof. Robert Grubbs put it simply: “He was a quiet, humble man, who showed us the way.”