An unassuming former student of the Department of Chemistry, Bharathidasan University, Tiruchi, Raja Angamuthu of Karur in Tamil Nadu has risen to become a researcher of global repute overcoming daunting obstacles, with sheer determination to succeed in life. He was among the group of scientists at the Lieden Institute of Chemistry, the Netherlands, that made a path-breaking discovery earlier this year of a molecule that sucks carbon dioxide from air.

Family support

Dr. Raja made his foster parents proud conquering penury all through his years at the Karur Municipal School and the Government Arts College, Karur.

For more than a decade he worked for the most part of night hours at an export company to fund his education and also support his family, before gaining admission to the Bharathidasan University during 2000.

Motivation at the college from teachers who identified the spark in him, and the moral and financial support from his former employer Vasanth and Company, landed him at the university and made it possible for him to complete postgraduation.

Research

As an M.Sc. Chemistry student at the Bharathidasan University, Dr. Raja had worked on a research project under the supervision of M. Palaniandavar, DST Ramanna Fellow, and continued at the university as his research assistant for three years whereby his research article was published in Journal of Inorganic Biochemistry, a high-impact journal. Owing to the publication of the article, he got an opportunity to do his Ph.D. in the famous research group of Jan Reedijik at Leiden University. Under the supervision of Scientist Elisabeth Bowman in the research group, Dr. Raja and his group discovered the molecule that sucks carbondioxide from the air using simple dinuclear Copper (I) complexes.

The discovery published in the world's topmost journals Science and Nature and many other journals could open up a new line of research — the scientific community sees the technique as an attractive way to capture carbon dioxide from the atmosphere — to combat global warming.

Global warming

Presenting their findings in Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Dr. Raja and other scientists in the group Philip Byers, Martin Lutz, Anthony L Spek, and Elisabeth Bowman said: “Global warming concern has dramatically increased interest in using carbon dioxide as a feedstock for preparation of value-added compounds, thereby helping to reduce its atmospheric concentration. Here, we describe a dinuclear copper (I) complex that is oxidised in air by carbon dioxide rather than oxygen; the product is a tetranuclear copper (II) complex containing two bridging carbon dioxide - derived oxalate groups. Treatment of the copper (II) oxalate complex in acetonitrile with a soluble lithium salt results in qualitative precipitation of lithium oxalate. The copper (II) complex can then be nearly quantitatively electrochemically reduced at a relatively accessible potential, regenerating the initial dinuclear copper (I) compound. Preliminary results demonstrate six turnovers (producing 12 equivalents of oxalate) during seven hours of catalysis at an applied potential of -0.03 volts versus the normal hydrogen electrode.”

The innovative chemistry offers a faint hope that a catalyst could one day selectively and efficiently remove the greenhouse gas from the air, turning it into organic chemicals, according to the report in Nature, published during January 2010. It said: “Once stripped off the catalyst, the oxalate salt can also form the basis of several chemicals that have practical applications. These include oxalic acid — commonly used in many laboratories and in household products such as rust-proofing treatments — and, after chemical conversion, ethylene glycol, which is used as an antifreeze in cars and as building block for chemical synthesis.”

Acclaim

Now that the discovery has been made, the procedure is bound to trigger researches worldwide for arriving at practical applications to counter global warming, Dr. Raja told The Hindu Education Plus.

A winner of Chemist of the Year Award in 2009 at the Leiden University, a thankful Dr. Raja owes the global recognition for his path-breaking research to his mentors, Dr. Palaniandavar, Coordinator, Centre for Bioinorganic Chemistry, School of Chemistry, Bharathidasan University, and Dr. Elisabeth Bowmam, a long-time friend of Dr. Palaniandavar. “Dr. Raja is a classic example of the maxim: Hard work pays. He started shouldering large responsibilities right from his school days. There is more to come,” said Sundarrajan, proprietor of Vasanth and Company, Karur.

Dr. Raja Angamuthu is all set to proceed to the University of Illinois for his two-year post-doctoral studies under the Rubicon programme. The programme supported by the Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research, the country's principal science funding body, by means of a national competition, is directed at promising young postdoctoral researchers who are still at the start of their careers but whose academic strengths give them the potential to become established figures in the Dutch research world.