Swansea University alumnus and distinguished chemistry scientist Sir John Meurig Thomas HonFREng FRS has been awarded The Royal Society 2016 Royal Medal for Physical Sciences.
Sir John is the first graduate of Swansea University to ever receive the award and it comes in the year in which Swansea re-establishes chemistry degree programmes after a 10 year break. Three Royal Medals, also known as the Queen’s Medals, are awarded annually by the Sovereign on the recommendation of the Council of the Society in recognition of the most important contributions in the physical, biological and applied sciences.
Sir John was awarded the medal for his pioneering work within catalytic chemistry, in particular on single-site heterogeneous catalysts, which have had a major impact on green chemistry, clean technology and sustainability. He will be presented with a medal of silver gilt and a gift of £10,000 at the Premier Awards dinner later this year.
John Meurig Thomas is internationally renowned for his work in the science of catalysts and solid state chemistry. The production chain of many modern materials and chemicals involves catalysts — substances that speed up chemical reactions, but use less energy and do not get used up themselves. Sir John has led the way in developing ‘green’ catalysts to make chemical processes less polluting and more efficient.
He pioneered the use of technologies like electron microscopy and neutron diffraction to ‘see’ how minuscule surface features of catalysts affect chemical reactions. He has particular expertise in heterogeneous catalysts — ones that are in a different phase to the reacting chemicals, such as a solid material that catalyses reactions of liquids.
Sir John is a former director of the Royal Institution, a role that complemented his keen interest in popularising science. Amongst his many publications is a biography of Michael Faraday who made significant contributions to electromagnetism and electrochemistry and is one of the most influential British scientists in history.
Sir John has been Head of the Department of Physical Chemistry, University of Cambridge and Professional Fellow at King’s College, Cambridge, and the Deputy Pro-Chancellor of the Federal University of Wales.
He has won multiple international awards including, this year, the Gold Medal for Outstanding Research from the University of Florence. In 1991 Thomas was knighted “for services to chemistry and the popularisation of science”.
In congratulating Sir John, Swansea University Pro-Vice-Chancellor Professor Steve Wilks said: “Sir John Meurig Thomas is one of the University’s most esteemed alumni. His research in the field of chemistry is on a par with those whose work has defined modern methodologies in science, technology, engineering and mathematics including Sir Michael Faraday, about whom, Sir John authored The Genius of Man and Place; Sir Michael Francis Atiyah, one of the world’s greatest mathematicians, and one of Sir John’s close contemporaries, who will lecture at the University this week; and Professor Olgierd Zienkiewicz, pioneer of the finite element method in structural mechanics who of course, worked at Swansea University as Head of Civil Engineering for much of his career.”