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INTERVIEW

Jairton Dupont: The radical chemist

The specialist in ionic liquids defends a more open, pluralistic, and democratic university

Liane NevesConsidered one of the 100 most influential chemists in the world by Thomson Reuters in 2011, Jairton Dupont may have gained international prominence but hasn’t lost touch with his roots. As an authentic southerner—born 60 years ago in Farroupilha in the state of Rio Grande do Sul to a family descended from Swiss and Italian immigrants—he likes unpredictable situations and challenges, or a good argument. Many of these involve simply defending the right to propose new ideas for the university, as in 2012, when he ran for the position of dean of the Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS), even though he knew he was unlikely to win. In fact, he didn’t win, but Dupont received three times more votes than he thought he would.

A professor in the Department of Organic Chemistry at the Institute of Chemistry at UFRGS, Dupont has been working since the 1990s with what are known as ionic liquids. These mixtures have unique properties for dissolving things such as cellulose, which would seem impossible by other methods. When it began, his group was one of only five in the world to adopt this line of research—now there are more than 100. With his team at the Molecular Catalysis Laboratory, today he also develops new techniques for capturing and transforming carbon dioxide (CO2) into useful compounds.

He met his Colombian wife Martha, a professor of international public law at UFRGS, in the 1980s during his postdoctoral fellowship at the University of Oxford in England. As father of Isabel Cristina, age 10, Dupont is proud to have guided his students to 50 doctorates and 34 master’s degrees, and to have more women than men in the group. “There are also LGBT students. And they all get along,” he says.

Throughout his career, he has received significant recognition, including the Humboldt Research Award from the German Ministry of Education, Science, and Technology (2005), the FINEP Inventor-Innovator Award (2008), and the Conrad Wessel Foundation prize in the science category (2010). In this interview, given in his lab at UFRGS, he spoke about his work, his vision regarding the university’s role, and his fight against social and sexual discrimination inside and outside academia.

Why do most people seem to have an aversion to chemistry?
This aversion isn’t just for chemistry, but for the so-called hard sciences in general, including physics and mathematics. A study done in the United Kingdom a few years ago has shown some possible causes. Students only have contact with someone who understands and uses math and science after nine years of school. There, contact is with those who don’t understand math in depth, which isn’t a science, but rather, a language. Without knowing this language, it’s difficult to do chemistry or physics and understand the logical world. Another reason is imagining that the logical world is an area of little creativity, in which little difference can be made for humanity—and it’s just the opposite.

Age 60
Specialty
Catalytic chemistry
Institution
Federal University of Rio Grande do Sul (UFRGS)
Education
Undergraduate degree in chemistry at UFRGS (1982), doctorate in chemistry from Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, France (1988)
Scientific production
333 articles and 2 books

Why?
The Industrial Revolution, for example, relied on chemistry, which is nothing more than turning matter into useful things. Life expectancy in the world has gone from 35 years in the nineteenth century to over 70 years, because of chemistry. If it weren’t for antibiotics, what would humanity be like today? Without ammonia, which is the basis of fertilizers, we wouldn’t have enough food. There is also a lot of bias, like when it’s said that chemistry is polluting. It may be, yes, but it’s not the chemistry that does it, but those who use it, and our economic and political models. Chemistry is a central science, from which many others derive. Physics explains chemistry and chemistry gives meaning to physics. In turn, chemistry explains biology and biology gives meaning to chemistry.

Your group was one of the first in Brazil—and the world—to work with ionic liquids. How is this research going today?
We started working in this area in the early 1990s, with Petrobras, who wanted to know if what were then called molten salts could be used in the development of cleaner and more environmentally friendly catalytic processes. In these processes, the speed of a chemical reaction is accelerated with the addition of a substance, the catalyst. What we call ionic liquids today were formerly known as molten salts. Cooking salt can be one of them. Heated to 801 degrees Celsius, it doesn’t decompose, and turns into a liquid with distinct properties. The results of our work were innovative. More importantly, we were able to assemble a conceptual model that explained what was observed, predicted the properties of the ionic liquids, and indicated where they could be used. We didn’t anticipate 10% of the current applications of ionic liquids.

What are they used for today?
In a hundred industrial processes, from the treatment of biomass to lubricating robots on Mars. Ionic liquids are part of what we call green and environmentally sound alternatives, because they can be used in sustainable chemical processes. In pharmaceuticals, they’re used to create drugs with new physicochemical properties. We have the expertise to design cleaner chemical processes, but clearly this isn’t the solution for all sustainable chemistry.

Why do ionic liquids fit into green chemistry?
First, because they are supports, not solvents; so much less is used. In general, they don’t evaporate. I can put them in front of us and we won’t breathe them in. If we do that with ethanol, we’ll breathe it. In addition, most of them are bactericidal and can be recycled easily. That’s mainly because we can modulate their physico-chemical properties, and produce ionic liquids with greater or lesser affinities for water or solubility. With ionic liquids I can dissolve previously impossible products, like cellulose, without using acid. In 2018, I was at a convention in the United States and I encountered a company that had created a technology, based on ionic liquids, for recycling the so-called oil sands, extremely heavy oil deposits containing sand, found in some places in the world.

Chemistry is a central science from which many others derive. But there is a lot of bias against it

Who else is researching these compounds around the world?
The competition is fierce. More than a hundred research groups in the world are working with ionic liquids. China has 19 laboratories and more than 1,200 doctoral students in this field. In Brazil, there are strong groups here [at UFRGS], and at USP [University of São Paulo], UNICAMP [University of Campinas] and UnB [University of Brasília], but they are few. Recently, branching out from ionic liquids I entered into another field, the capture of carbon dioxide, CO2.

What’s that about?
Around six years ago, Petrobras and Braskem consulted us about developing processes for capturing CO2. They also wanted this gas to be used as raw material for the manufacture of reagents, combustible fuels, chemical commodities, anything. As we already had experience using ionic liquids for CO2 absorption, we began to work on activating the molecule, which is very stable. The dream of every chemist is to make artificial photosynthesis, producing sugars from CO2, water, and light. We are far from it, but this is one of the paths we’re following, using light to turn CO2 into something usable.

What results have been achieved so far?
We’ve already obtained carbon monoxide [CO], a highly reactive molecule that can be used in the industrial chain, without the use of semiconductors. We found six alternatives with potential to capture CO2 in the lab. We have to collect thermodynamic data, test the pilot plant at COPPE [Alberto Luiz Coimbra Institute for Graduate Studies and Research in Engineering at the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro] and do a life cycle analysis to see if it’s worthwhile. We hope that an industrial CO2 capture process using ionic liquids will soon be put into operation on Petrobras drilling platforms, instead of aqueous amine compounds, which are volatile and corrosive.

How is Brazil doing in the field of catalysis?
It had been really good, but now it’s bad. In the 1980s, we stopped receiving catalysts for cracking [fragmenting] raw petroleum, due to opposition by the United States. So it was decided to create the FCC, the Fábrica Carioca de Catalisadores [the Rio Catalyzer Factory], and Brazil became independent. It’s a strategic thing for the country. We continue to manufacture, but we no longer own very much of the technology. This incident reminds me of a story, something that happened in France. There was a Minister of Science and Technology there who thought that it was better to stop financing science and only invest in libraries. After all, others produced the knowledge, which was available and needed only to be taken advantage of. The chemist Jean-Marie Lehn, who later won a Nobel Prize in 1987, told this minister that the problem was that even though the current generation would still be able to understand what was written and perhaps reproduce it, the next one might only understand the technology, but wouldn’t know how to reproduce it, and the following generation wouldn’t even understand it. That’s why we can’t forget projects that are important for the nation.

For example?
One of them is the nuclear submarine. In that project, it’s not just the submarine that matters, but all the technology that the country could develop, as well as educating personnel to keep moving forward in this area. Other sources of pride are the National Synchrotron Light Laboratory (LNLS) and CNPEM (the National Center for Research in Energy and Materials), the largest and best infrastructure for anyone working in physics, chemistry, and materials science. During the time since it was decided to build an accelerator, rather than buy one ready-made, we’ve created generations of technicians, engineers, and researchers, many of them working in companies that are able to produce high-tech items.

Personal archive Dupont and Martha, newlyweds: the wedding took place in England, while he was studying at OxfordPersonal archive

You directed the Center for Nanoscience at UFRGS. What was that experience like?
It was the government’s idea to bring together laboratories, of which there were only a few, and which were scattered around the country. National laboratories were created at universities in São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Pernambuco, Minas Gerais, and Rio Grande do Sul. They are virtual laboratories, which would focus on techniques for using nanotechnology. It was up to the Ministry of Science and Technology to purchase and maintain equipment for general use and access. At UFRGS we had magnificent results, including products that are already on the market, such as a 100-spf sunscreen made with nanotechnology, created by chemistry and pharmacology teachers who took advantage of this infrastructure. What didn’t move forward were the university’s policies for hiring teachers and researchers in this area. There was a lack of planning.

Why is nanotechnology talked about much less now than it was a few years ago?
The research has spread, and there are relevant applications, such as in the production of paints, but sometimes we’ve made the wrong decisions. When Brazil decided to enter the area of carbon nanotubes, it bit off more than it could chew. The Chinese entered and dominated the market. Our strategy wasn’t adequate. We only did incremental technologies. In addition, the number of researchers is low, funding isn’t continuous, and the policies of universities, businesses, and government agencies are often misguided because they’re based on guesswork rather than evidence.

Since the 1990s your group has been receiving corporate funding. How is this relationship working?
The problems with research are funding day-to-day operations, how to acquire equipment and reagents, and keeping the labs functional. Universities, with rare exceptions, do little. Thus the need to seek out resources at the CNPq [the National Council for Scientific and Technological Development], which is the biggest fund for the individual researcher, and at FINEP [the Brazilian Funding Authority for Studies and Projects], which funds institutional projects. Fortunately there’s CAPES, which invests in what’s most important, the people, and evaluates the graduate programs, which are the crown jewels of Brazilian science, technology, and innovation. We can submit projects to these agencies or look for companies interested in doing innovation, technology, and science. The big problem is that most of our large industries are shortsighted and pragmatic. They want to solve a problem for R$10,000 and earn R$100 million. Petrobras is one of the few companies with high-risk projects that value knowledge above application.

What is it like working with them?
There’s never been any conflict. What’s best about Petrobras, despite all the restraints, is the technical staff at CENPES [the Leopoldo Américo Miguez de Mello Research and Development Center]. It has very good relationships with universities. Not surprisingly, Brazil is a world leader in deep-water oil extraction. Sometimes tensions arise because the time scale of universities is different from that of a company. We want to publish because we’re under academic pressure, but Petrobras wants to wait for patents to be approved. Since they understand that our job is to do research, things get worked out.

In what way?
We need to ask for authorization, as it’s done anywhere else in the world, since we have a contract with the company. But there’s no problem about that. I always take care to involve postdoctoral students in the corporate projects, not master’s or doctoral candidates. The latter have a prescribed time to do the work, and if that gets extended, they won’t get their degrees. Postdocs are freer.

Personal archive The researcher during the inauguration of the Molecular Catalysis Laboratory at UFRGS in 2014Personal archive

How would you evaluate the relationship between universities and companies?
It’s not very refined yet. In my opinion, the industry doesn’t hire PhDs for several reasons. The main one is bias. The industry thinks that the university has to train professionals for its specific jobs, but this doesn’t happen. The university educates professionals who can easily work in the most discrete fields, but the specialties are acquired in the workplace. If I take a competitive exam to be a Petrobras oil engineer, after getting hired I’ll have to spend six months in training to know what I’m doing. I’ve been at FIESP [Federation of Industries of the State of São Paulo], at FIRJAN [Federation of Industries of the State of Rio de Janeiro], and they get on my case. I ask them, “What world are you coming from?” The Legal Framework for Science, Technology and Innovation, which is a breakthrough in integrating companies and public research centers, is still blocked and paralyzed. There’s no point in thinking about more interaction with other social groups if universities don’t change the way they function.

What changes need to be made?
Universities have immense difficulty with instituting change. Often they behave like they are merely administrative offices. Every time I’m asked to buy reagents, I have to explain that I cannot predict what I’m going to need two months down the road. So if I can’t do a public procurement bidding process, how can I buy anything? Beyond that, most Brazilian universities are oriented towards undergraduate education and give little importance to research and graduate studies. Out of almost a hundred public universities in Brazil, not even half do research. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it must be made clear that the priority is to educate undergraduate students. In my generation, those who didn’t have a high school education couldn’t get a good job very easily. Today, if you don’t have an undergraduate degree, you’re screwed. In a few years, without a doctorate, you could be one of the marginalized.

You did a postdoctoral internship in England in the 1980s, then returned for a period of three years in 2014. What did you do there?
I was one of four professors hired to set up a carbon-neutral laboratory at the University of Nottingham, which aims to have zero carbon emissions within 20 years. The lab generates its own energy and consumes the lowest amount of water and energy possible. It was funded by the GSK pharmaceutical corporation, which wanted to have a model laboratory to base their future labs on, using the same principles. It was a great experience, even better for the Brazilian postdocs who went there—two of them were hired and stayed in the UK. While I was there, and after returning to UFRGS, I tried to show students that what we do here is cutting-edge research, and we can make a difference.

What is the significance of being chosen one of the most influential chemists in the world in 2011?
Today, from a more mature viewpoint, I can see that my team, students, and colleagues understood that on this journey, the collaborators who’ve left here after completing their research are the best testament to what I am. I was really excited about a science party that alumni organized in December 2018 in honor of my sixtieth birthday. It was in Florianópolis, because I have several former students who are teachers there. Besides, I love that city. There were former students from Portugal, Spain, Germany, Pakistan, and people I hadn’t seen for 30 years, such as my doctoral advisor, Michel Pfeffer, who’s quite old now, who opened the conference. I’m proud to have trained so many people, many who have greater capacities than I do to understand the world and test hypotheses. One former student won a Humboldt Scholarship, went to Germany, came back, gave up doing chemistry, and now works as a fashion designer. She followed a path that made her happier. There’s no reason to think that we have to stay on a predetermined path.

And what was the road that led you to becoming a scientist?
At home, my only obligation was to study. We had only the Bible and the Encyclopedia Britannica. My mother, who was extremely Catholic, made me read the Bible; my father was an anarchist, and an atheist. Despite these differences, they lived together harmoniously. Reading the Bible, to my mother’s dismay, made me an atheist. How could a God be genocidal and promote slavery? How can anyone talk to a snake? My mother noticed that I wasn’t going to church anymore and said that I might go to hell. My father got mad and told her that I was an atheist and should do whatever I thought best with my life. Today I can see that atheism gave me more curiosity in the face of the unknown and didn’t allow me to look for easy explanations for the experiments that didn’t work. We live with failure every day, but a scientist can’t simply say that it was God’s work and give up. At the age of 14 I started high school in the evening at the UFRGS Technical School, and worked during the day. Before that I’d already done a lot. From the age of nine I shined shoes and sold candy on the streets in downtown Porto Alegre. I’ve been through a lot already. That’s why when I receive threats I’m not afraid.

Universities have immense difficulty instituting change. Often, they behave as if they were merely administrative offices

Why the threats?
Because of my political positions. I’ve always been ambitious and wanted to change things and make a difference. Sometimes I went into contracts that weren’t very good. Twenty years ago I tried for the director position at the Institute of Chemistry and didn’t get it. Seven years ago, I was a candidate for dean of the university, as a protest, and to present new ideas. I thought our platform would get a maximum of 10% of the votes, but we got 31%. I was trying to show that we should get out of our comfort zone, but the system wasn’t ready for it. The boldest proposals don’t fit into personal projects. Now some of my colleagues want me to be director of the institute. I’m a radical democrat. For me, you need to have an election for everything. A student’s vote is worth as much as a professor’s. And democracy needs to be in every institution, including private companies. I dread any type of dictatorship. From the economic point of view, I am a capitalist to the bitter end. It’s necessary to have competition; otherwise, the state intervenes. From a social point of view, I’m a socialist. Some things can’t have competition, like health, water, and electrical power; the state has to provide, there’s no other solution. In Nottingham, England, whose population always voted for labor politicians, there were five gas and electricity companies. The city decided to create a public gas and energy company, which increased competition and cut prices in half. It wasn’t necessary to nationalize. I’ve been an activist since college, and I still take to the streets whenever necessary, to defend human rights. I am against homophobia, racism, misogyny, and religious fundamentalism.

Any recent incidents?
The other day I learned that a student was being harassed by a colleague. I talked to her and recommended that she report him to the ombudsman. “And don’t do just that,” I said. “There’s a police station nearby. Go there—if you want I’ll go along—and say that you were harassed.” This doesn’t mean that from time to time I don’t have homophobic, misogynist, or racist attitudes. I do. I use expressions that I regret having said. But I’m always trying to broaden my view of the world. In my lab I have more women researchers than men. There are also LGBTs, and they all get along. The institute is the first at UFRGS to have a black, transsexual professor. Racial and homophobic discrimination has apparently decreased with the quotas, and the university became happier, more diverse, pluralistic, and intellectually rich. It is worth remembering Paulo Freire [1921–1997]. He said that if education is not liberating, the dream of the oppressed is to become the oppressor. This is one of the greatest challenges of education.

In your youth, you liked mathematics a lot, but ended up trading it for chemistry. Why?
Because I love the unpredictable. Math was my passion from the time I was a child. When I entered the university, in the science track, which trained teachers for elementary education, mathematics was easy, but chemistry posed questions I didn’t know how to answer. In addition, chemistry is empirical and allows one to create hypotheses more easily. I got my associate’s, then my bachelor’s, focused on chemistry, and after finishing my undergraduate degree I did my specialization abroad at the Louis Pasteur University in Strasbourg, France. Then I followed that with my doctorate in Strasbourg as well.

You’ve already stated that you don’t know a good chemist who isn’t also a good gourmet. Do you cook?
It’s my passion. Chemistry knowledge helps to combine textures, flavors, and colors, to understand the reactions, and to see what to use and how much time to cook things. Every day when I get home I cook, usually with my 10-year-old daughter, Isabel Cristina. When she approves, it means I got it right. I also have a passion for astrophysics and modern philosophy. And I love watching soccer on TV and cheering for Inter when I have time.

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