Dr. Warren Piers

2016 Science,  Winner

Using Chemistry to Create Chemicals, Plastics and Drugs

Dr. Warren Piers is considered an expert in organometallic chemistry around the world. Although this may sound daunting, Piers simply describes it as “the process of making molecules which contain metal carbon bonds. (These molecules) are important compounds for the catalytic reactions responsible for creating pharmaceuticals, polymers, plastics and more.”

This field is a significant contributor to many other fields and has been the recipient of six Nobel prizes over the past 50 years. Piers is a senior member in this field and currently holds the position of Tier I Canada Research Chair in the Mechanisms of Homogeneous Catalytic Reactions at the University of Calgary. This is one of the top positions offered by the federal government to Canadian researchers working in post-secondary schools.

Making New Areas of Science

For the past 20 years, Piers has been making important discoveries in organometallic chemistry. One of his earlier innovations occurred during his time studying borane-catalyzed hydrosilation chemistry in the mid 1990s. This work involves the addition of a silicon-hydrogen bond to an unsaturated substrate. Piers’ research determined that non-metal catalysis could be used in place of the commonly used metal catalysis. This discovery was a breakthrough, because non-metals in catalytic reactions are much cheaper, more abundantly available and less toxic. This discovery has greatly improved the processes involved in borane-catalyzed hydrosilation chemistry.

Piers’ work has had a significant impact on the development of Frustrated Lewis Pair chemistry. This branch of chemistry involves a new way of activating single bonds, which is a key step in any catalytic reaction. Upon publishing the results of his findings, many other groups around the world began replicating and building upon Piers’ results, resulting in the development of a new branch of chemistry research.

With these significant contributions behind him, Piers is now looking toward the future of organometallic chemistry. “Traditionally, organometallic chemistry has had a large influence on the development of petrochemicals into useful products. However, I think the future of the industry -- and of the world -- is moving away from petrochemicals,” says Piers. “Therefore, we need to get energy from other sources, which requires catalysis to convert sunlight into chemical bonds that will form new types of fuels.”

Following in His Father’s Footsteps

From an early age, Piers knew he wanted to be involved in this scientific enterprise. This stemmed from several reasons, but the biggest influence was his father. “I had a great role model for a father,” explains Piers. “He was a chemist and worked as a professor at the University of British Columbia, so I had no uncertainties about what I wanted to do.”

Piers not only shares the title of chemist with his father, but also the title of professor. For more than 20 years, Piers has been a professor at the University of Calgary, where he also leads the Piers Group. This group of undergrads, graduate students, postdoctoral fellows and visiting scientists is a community of scientific learning driven to push the boundaries on catalysis research. 

This group has graduated over 30 Master of Science and Ph.D. graduates, 40 post-doctoral fellows and more than 30 undergrad students. 12 of these graduates now hold scientific positions in Alberta and many others are making scientific contributions throughout Canada and around the world.