Innovative EPFL chemist wins annual Latsis Prize

Xile Hu won the award for his work on catalytic chemical processes. Valerie Chetelat

Chinese scientist Xile Hu, a professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), has been awarded the prestigious 2017 National Latsis Prize for his innovative work on catalytic processes.

This content was published on November 29, 2017 - 15:16 and agencies

The 39-year-old was awarded the CHF100,000 ($101,400) accolade for his “pioneering work on the production of solar fuels and the synthesis of high-added-value molecules”, said a press statementExternal link on Wednesday by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

His contribution to the understanding of catalysis – the use of a substance to accelerate chemical transformations; an almost ubiquitous process in chemistry – is marked by an innovative approach combining the methods associated with various types of catalysis, for sometimes surprising results.

For example, when his team attempted to use enzymatic catalysis to further their research into solar fuels (heterogeneous catalysis), it didn’t work but they did discover a very good, new type of catalyst.

Unpredictable approach

“We use solar energy to split water into oxygen and hydrogen, because hydrogen is an excellent source of energy. We would like to use catalytic materials to store this energy in the form of chemical products,” explained Hu. He estimates that this type of technology could become a reality in 15-20 years.

The scientist, who was born in China but has been at EPFL since 2007, says that his approach is driven by ignoring the barriers between different types of catalytic research. “I always try to introduce something new or unpredictable to my research,” he said.

The National Latsis prize has been awarded since 1983 by SNSF, on behalf of the Geneva-based non-profit Latsis FoundationExternal link. It is awarded annually to Swiss-based researchers under the age of forty.

Previous winners have come chiefly from the natural sciences, though historians, linguists, and ecologists have also been honoured.

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