Professor Alexei Kornyshev won the Electrochimica Acta Gold Medal for his significant contributions to electrochemistry.
He is the third British scientist to win this medal, which is the highest honor in the International Society of Electrochemistry (ISE). It was announced last week at the ISE General Assembly. As part of the award, he will give the award plenary lecture at next year’s annual meeting.
We caught up with Professor Kornyshev to find out his reaction to the victory.
This is the first time that the ISE Gold Medal has been awarded to a theorist. What does a theoretical chemist study?
I do not see myself as a theoretical chemist, rather I am a theoretical physicist who works in the field of chemical physics, and mainly in the chemical physics of condensed matter, with applications in electrochemistry, biophysics, nanosciences , energy and new materials.
Theoretical chemists can use first-principle approaches to calculate things like molecule properties and reaction pathways, while theoretical physicists’ approach is to build a model to try to capture the most important features of the system. , to write things as simple as possible. equations, then to have predictions following the resolution of these equations.
This award is for electrochemistry, but I no longer work in what can be called classical electrochemistry such as electrocatalysis, batteries, solar cells or other very important everyday things. Electrochemical processes are crucial to what happens in living matter, where electrical signals and voltage drops control chemical reactions, for example. But electrochemistry can be applied much further, for various sustainable energy systems, micro-robotics, nano-diodes and electrochemically controlled photonic materials.
I’m trying to advance the concept of electrochemical “metamaterials” – materials with strange, disruptive, and novel functions, whose properties can be electrochemically controlled by tiny variations in voltage.
Why did you choose this area?
It is commonly said that physicists believe that there are some sort of universal laws underlying every phenomenon. Biologists overwhelmingly believe only in principle; they are proud and happy to identify that the underlying mechanisms of the phenomena they study are becoming more and more complex. And chemistry is in between – to me it’s a complicated version of physics.
In particular, if we talk about electrochemistry, in its essence it is physics, but it implies knowledge of the real chemistry of the properties of molecules, liquids, solids and their interfaces. But there are clearly a lot of general rules that physicists can discover there, so I was excited about the complexity of electrochemistry, in which I believe you can still distinguish some general trends or big things that can be described in a unified way.
How does it feel to see some of your theories come to life in the lab when you work with experimenters?
Working with experimenters and seeing things that really work is extremely rewarding. It’s huge when you can see that the theory’s predictions are working very well – the effects are seen where they should be and not seen where they shouldn’t be!
If you’re trying to apply physics to describe very complex “chemical” systems, and if it works as physical theory predicts, that means you’ve been able to capture the key factors, and what you thought was secondary could indeed be neglected. In our daily life, the most important thing is to distinguish between the important and the insignificant. Every day we have to make decisions about what we can ignore and neglect, and what we should take to heart – it’s the same in research.
What have been some of the scientific highlights of your career?
I have worked in many areas of fundamental chemical physics, as well as applied sciences, such as fuel cell and supercapacitor theory, where physical theory can do a lot. These works earn a lot of citations, but there are others that are very important to me. I worked with my science partner at the National Institutes of Health at Bethesda, Sergey Leikin, to construct the first detailed theory of the interactions of helical molecules in solution. This theory, very difficult at the beginning, gave rise to various predictions and made it possible to rationalize many observations.
One was the effect of how genes can recognize each other at the precursor stage of so-called homologous recombination. Genetic recombination is central to evolution, genetic diversity and robustness of life (DNA repair). But it is very important that the genes responsible for the same function are exchanged during genetic recombination, because if they mistakenly exchange the wrong genes, there will be consequences, such as heavy genetic diseases or cell death contributing to the aging.
We launched experiments to verify the predictions of this theory, which were performed here at Imperial in 2008, then by a Harvard team using different methods, and then by our combined teams. But this is still not enough, because to convince biologists of the importance of a physical phenomenon in the most fundamental process of molecular biology, this effect must be demonstrated not in a “test tube” but in a cell. . We now have a Leverhulme grant funded project with a wonderful team of experimentalists at Imperial who will try to experimentally manifest these phenomena and verify the predictions of the theory in a synthetic cell.
The other important point was our work in photonics with Prof. Joshua Edel and Prof. Anthony Kucernak on electrochemically tunable optical filters. But at the moment we don’t have the funds to develop it further and to explore large-scale applications of our findings.
One of the spin-offs of what we had, with my very talented post-doc who is now an assistant professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Dr Debabrata Sikdar, and Professor Sir John Pendry, was a discovery of the way to greatly improve the performance of LED chips. We have theoretically predicted how to suppress the internal reflection of light, which will make them brighter, while ensuring that the chip will not overheat and therefore live much longer, which can have huge consequences on the market. These predictions are tested in Joshua Edel’s lab.
I also really liked the work that we recently did with the international group associated with the prediction that a single molecule can function as a diode, that is, it can translate electric current in one direction with one force and in the opposite direction with the other force. It’s called rectification, and people dream of using it for nanodiodes. Our prediction of this effect was made in 2006, but this year it has been demonstrated experimentally.
You have collaborated with many international partners throughout your career. Why is this important to you?
What you need for a successful collaboration is a complementarity of skills, know-how and knowledge, and above all — the right “chemistry” between the partners. But you can rarely start it in one day – you combine skills and also equipment, methods and other things over the years. People who do this very often can be anywhere. Sometimes they might be in places like Harvard and MIT, they might be in China or India, Israel, or Europe’s centers of excellence, whether it’s Germany or France, or Europe of the East where certain directions of research may be particularly well advanced.
I recently cooperated with groups in Ukraine, in Lviv, and despite the severity of the war imposed on them, they continue to do quality work, devoted entirely to science.
But what I also feel through all these collaborations are friendships. And friendships are probably the most important thing in our lives. I have such lifelong friends in the United States, in Germany, in China. France, Israel – anywhere. And it is a great privilege for scientists to have this opportunity.
You are the third Briton to win the ISE gold medal. What does this mean to you?
I have been a British citizen for quite a long time and have worked at Imperial for over 20 years. But my career can be divided into three periods: there was a Russian period where I was brought up as a scientist, then a German period where I matured as a real private detective and head of a laboratory, and when I joined the mighty Imperial, people accepted me enthusiastically.
Every time you get some sort of external or international recognition, you feel like you’re paying back, so to speak. So that the people who believed in you are not mistaken!
In addition, most of this internationally recognized work has been carried out in teams. Rarely were they even purely Imperial or British teams, although many of them were initiated at Imperial, whose environment is particularly stimulating for collaborative research. Any measure of esteem recognizes these activities.