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Past Winner
2001 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship

Warren Piers

Chemistry

University of Calgary


Warren Piers
Warren Piers

The future of the plastic pop bottle depends on Dr. Warren Piers' daily bike ride. That's because the 10 kilometre trek to and from his lab at the University of Calgary is the perfect catalyst for this synthetic chemist's active imagination.

His success in turning a scientist's vision into a myriad of new chemicals has transformed the ways that some plastics are made. It's cutting-edge research that has earned him a 2001 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council Steacie Fellowship – one of Canada's premier science and engineering prizes.

Like the avid Rocky Mountain scrambler (the energetic sport of literally scrambling up rock inclines) that he is, Dr. Piers has always sought out challenging chemical terrain.

"Synthetic chemists are artisans, we make things at the molecular level," says Dr. Piers. "The challenge is that you have to operate within certain rules, chemical rules. You can envision chemical structures in your mind's eye. The trick is to build them."

Born in Edmonton, Dr. Piers grew up in Richmond, B.C. As a PhD student in the mid-1980s, Dr. Piers worked in the chemistry sub-discipline of organometallic chemistry – organic molecules bonded to large metal atoms. His postdoctoral research was part of a revolution in the understanding of the chemical behaviour of so-called early-transition metals, such as scandium and titanium.

Many of these organometallic molecules function as powerful catalysts – the chemical equivalents of matchmakers.

And some of the catalysts created by Dr. Piers and his research team have significantly improved our understanding of the polyethylene creation process. Most people know polyethylene as a plastic used to make countless products, from drink bottles to plastic wrap. But it starts out as a gas. It requires catalysts to knit together the small, single gas molecules to form large solid ones.

"Polyethylene is a commodity polymer with a huge market," Dr. Piers says. "Over the last 10 to 15 years, the way in which it is manufactured has undergone a fundamental change."

Reactions that previously involved a stew of catalysts, now involve only a single one. The result is the ability to create plastics with more precise structures and therefore unique and useful physical properties.

For Dr. Piers, however, it's the chemical ride and not just the destination that counts.

"The joy I get from synthetic chemistry stems from the design and execution of elegant preparations of complex molecules," says Dr. Piers. "The fact that the target molecules are useful is intentional, but this is secondary to me."