Terence Scarnicchia

Geoffrey Ozin. Photo credit: Terence Scarnicchia

In the 1950s, Ernest Ozin ran a bespoke tailor shop with his brother near Savile Row in London, England.

“He was an artist,” says Geoffrey Ozin of his father. “I watched him choose a material from the bulk rolls, considering colour, texture, pattern, weight. He’d cut and sew, fit and shape. He understood the form and function of the materials he worked with and that’s what I do too. I always wanted him to see the artistic side of what I do.” 

Ozin, now a researcher at the University of Toronto, whom many refer to as a “father of nanochemistry,” recently received the 2015 Royal Society of Chemistry Centenary Prize for his work defining, enabling and popularizing a chemical approach to nanomaterials. His work has spurred developments in nanotechnology, advanced materials and biomedical science.

After all that, Ozin still feels the influence of his formative years in England. In addition to his father, he cites two other early forces that shaped his career: failure and lack of planning. “I was an 11-Plus failure,” he said, referring to a British exam that used to stream tweens onto different educational paths. “If you failed this countrywide exam, you went to technical schools. I started down that stream. Then, for reasons I can’t explain, I did very well. I was transferred at age 16 to a grammar school. I was so insecure, having been told I was doomed to this other life. I felt I had to prove myself.”

Ozin soon found role models among his teachers who fostered his newly discovered love of mathematics, physics and chemistry. He attributes his success — then and now — more to external circumstance rather than internal drive or talent. “It was purely by chance,” he says. “I was either going to follow the family footsteps and go into men’s fashion or go to university.”

Ernest Ozin died of a heart attack in 1962 at the age of 50 when his son was only 18. The family business imploded. The son left pinstripes and pocket squares behind, becoming instead the first Ozin to attend university. 

He studied chemistry at King’s College London and Oxford University. As a young PhD, he discovered that Canada had a growing academic community, welcoming to international talent. “I basically didn’t have a plan, I think that’s fair to say,” he says. “I was starving. I didn’t have a job. I wanted to be a professor. My wife and I had zero intention of leaving our families in the UK. But I was offered three different jobs in Canada over the telephone.”

In Canada in the 1970s, Ozin began honing his particular brand of discovery — allowing one insight to lead intuitively to the next, rather than pursuing some grand “holy grail.” His first breakthroughs came in cryochemistry, which is the study of chemical interactions at temperatures below –150 C. At the time, many chemists were working to combine metals with organic compounds. Chromium, for instance, could be vaporized and mixed with benzene. When exposed to a liquid-nitrogen cooled surface, two benzene molecules would bond with chromium to create the organometallic sandwich compound di-benzene chromium.

Geoffrey Ozin attributes­ his achievements in nanochemistry­ to his early failures and lack of planning. Photo credit Terence Scarnicchia

Geoffrey Ozin attributes­ his achievements in nanochemistry­ to his early failures and lack of planning. Photo credit Terence Scarnicchia

Ozin speculated that if he used colder temperatures and decreased the concentration of benzene, he could bond single benzene molecules to chromium. “Half a sandwich,” he calls it. When he succeeded, he started working to eliminate the organic compounds altogether and aggregate metal atoms on their own. Working at liquid helium temperatures, he created monomers, dimers, trimers, tetramers and so on, out of chromium, silver and other metals. “Nobody had seen clusters of atoms this small,” he says. “On paper, everyone knew they existed. They had been studied in the gas phase but to actually make materials out of them was new.”

In fact, these materials were more than new. They had unusual properties that seemed to change with each additional atom. Heat and electrical conductivity, melting points, light absorption and emission as well as other properties seemed to be affected merely by the number of atoms. “Instead of using structure and composition — the tools by which chemists traditionally change properties — I suddenly realized I could take one material and have an infinity of properties,” he says. “Every atom gave me a different property for the same composition and same structure. That was amazing. It was as if materials chemistry was beginning again.”

Ozin’s discoveries would be ground breaking. The most interesting property changes emerged in clusters between one and 100 nanometres. Smaller particles belong to molecular physics, while anything larger is governed by classical physics. Nanoscale objects fell somewhere in between. Ozin’s “What’s next?” approach to chemistry kept drawing him, unknowingly, toward nanochemistry.

 “Geoff’s strength is that he’s an innovator,” says Richard Catlow, a professor of materials and inorganic chemistry at University College London, who has followed Ozin’s work for more than 20 years. “He always wants to move on. That’s his personality and personality affects science,” Catlow says. 

Ozin was invited to the California Institute of Technology as a Fairchild scholar. There, he struck up a working relationship with Harry Gray, who is now Caltech’s Arnold O. Beckman professor of chemistry. “I had been following his work developing methods to isolate atoms in matrices and looking at interactions of those atoms with ligands,” Gray says. He, Ozin and other collaborators became increasingly intrigued by nanoscale chemical structures. “When we get down to very small-scale nanocrystals, say, two or three nanometres, they are quantum confined — they have discrete energy levels rather than regular metallic properties,” Gray says. “They might have brilliant colours and discrete absorption bands. Then we take them up to 10 nanometres and they’re black with no discrete patterns.”

Ozin had maintained his boyhood interest in physics and mathematics. The next round of discovery emerged from those eclectic fascinations. “I was reading the physics literature about ‘quantum size effects,’ ” he recalls. “I realized I had a method for getting into the relevant size range. You didn’t see the words ‘nanochemistry’ or ‘nanomaterials’ at that time. We talked about making ‘quantum size effect materials.’ There were lots of scientists thinking the same way. But we weren’t yet calling it a field.”

 Terence Scarnicchia

Geoffrey Ozin researches how solar-powered refineries could convert CO2 on an industrial scale, transforming it from a driver of climate change into a driver of eco-friendly global economies. Photo credit Terence Scarnicchia

Outside of academia, the catalysis industry had been pursuing parallel research. For years, industry researchers had known that the size of catalytic particles determined their chemical behaviour — their commercial operations were based on processes that utilized nanoscale materials. Industrial catalysis research fostered Ozin’s interest in how his materials might be used. “I had to stop just synthesizing and start looking for something that does something,” he says. “Function and utility were difficult to consider in chemistry labs in those early days. Now it’s routine. The mantra is: synthesis, structure, property, function, utility.”

Ozin left behind cold surfaces to experiment with nucleating and growing metals and semiconductors in zeolites — materials with nanoscale holes that precisely limited the size of clusters. Today, nanoscale materials created atom-by-atom have found many applications thanks to their unique properties, which are shared by neither individual molecules nor bulk materials of the same composition. Nanomaterials now form the basis for data storage systems, batteries and fuel cells, photocatalytic processes, chemical sensors and new drug delivery methods.  

Ozin remains rooted in basic research. He’s the lead author of Nanochemistry: A Chemical Approach to Nanomaterials. In its second edition, Nanochemistry remains the authoritative textbook for the field. His attention, though, continues to wander. Biomimetics. Organic/inorganic hybrids. Photonic crystals. Nanolocomotive materials controlled by on-board catalysis.  

 Terence Scarnicchia

Geoffrey Ozin uses this solar simulator light source to power the gas-phase heterogeneous catalytic conversion of CO2 to value-added fuels. Photo credit: Terence Scarnicchia

“Geoff always had this industrial or applied focus, even when what he was doing was incredibly fundamental in its nature,” says David Farrar, the former chair of the Department of Chemistry at U of T. Farrar describes Ozin as “almost fearless” in taking on research challenges. “He has studied structures that are not precisely ordered like a crystal. They’re not well defined and they’re very difficult to study,” Farrar says. “A lot of chemists just stayed out of it because it was too complex. Geoff just went into it.”

Ozin’s intellectual restlessness and lack of restraint manifested in many ways, Farrar recalls. “When I was chair of the chemistry department, at least one morning per week, Geoff would walk into my office and you’d just have to cancel the next hour. You’d have to talk him off the ledge.”

On some occasions, Ozin was ready to drop from that ledge over an academic dispute and on others, he was ready to take flight. “One of Geoff’s personal features is this absolutely infectious enthusiasm,” said University College London’s Richard Catlow. “He’d come bouncing into your office and say, ‘Look at these results!’ I had management jobs to do, but he’d say, ‘Put it away and look at this science.’ ”

Farrar, Catlow and others agree that Ozin’s passion extends also to communicating and teaching. “He has a very big scientific progeny,” says Catlow. “That is important for successful scientists later in their careers. They train people up. Geoff has large numbers of former students who are now professors in universities around the world. That’s a very important contribution.”

But decades later, Ozin still feels the influence of his father, the bespoke tailor. “In fashion you’re only as good as your last design,” he says. “I’m fashionable. That’s why I kept moving on to new things.” 

His career path today is no more strategic than when he was a postdoctoral fellow. “I’m always asking, ‘What’s next?’” he says. “I don’t know if I get bored or it just becomes too difficult to go into more detail. I get to the point where I get the ‘Eureka!’ Then it’s on to the next natural step toward a new idea.”

Today, Ozin is occupied with using nanostructured catalysts to turn carbon dioxide into renewable fuel and industrial chemicals. Ozin believes solar-powered refineries could convert CO2 on an industrial scale, transforming the villain of climate change into an eco-friendly driver of global economies.  

This current research draws on both his knowledge of nanochemistry and catalysis and also his understanding of the industrial world. He leads a multidisciplinary team working to develop a CO2 conversion process that’s explicitly compatible with existing industry practices.  
This new direction has placed him back in contact with Harry Gray, who runs Caltech’s Solar Fuel Center for Chemical Innovation. “In the last couple of years I’ve revived my interest in his work,” says Gray. “I’ve paid attention to his editorials and perspectives on what we need to do to turn CO2 into fuels and chemicals. I think he’s making a big difference in getting people interested in the issue.”

For Ozin, this latest career shift follows his lifelong pattern of thinking no further ahead than his latest intellectual fancy. “I decided at age 65 to go for something new and big; CO2 was that thing,” Ozin says. “I have entered this field as a new boy on the block. It’s challenging but I am just enjoying the science.”