Mercouri Kanatzidis was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, an administrative capital of the Roman Empire and Constantinople’s sister city in the Byzantine Empire. It’s a place steeped in greatness – an appropriate hometown for a chemist dedicated to world-changing research.
“I wanted to generate new knowledge for humanity,” Kanatzidis says of his younger self. “I thought by doing research and discovering new things ... that would expand our knowledge as humans.”
Now a chemistry professor at Northwestern, Kanatzidis and his research group work in relative obscurity (well, as obscure as you can be when you’re one of the most cited researchers in your field). But as recently as last November, Kanatzidis flew to Israel to receive a shared $1 million prize for his work on reducing fossil fuel use in automobiles through thermoelectricity.
That, along with his research in the field of non-silicon solar panels – he works with the mineral perovskite to make low-cost options that work well in low light – fills the majority of his research lab’s time. While all these endeavors have the potential to be revolutionary, it’s actually one of his smallest projects that might someday have the biggest impact.
More than a century ago, two scientists discovered how to artificially fix nitrogen to produce ammonia – most commonly found in fertilizer. Called the Haber- Bosch process, it completely altered the 20th century, greatly increasing crop productivity, and spurring the green revolution and fueling massive population growth.
“[It’s] the most important reaction that we humans perform on this planet,” Kanatzidis says. But the technology has its flaws. The process requires a huge amount of heat and energy along with a high-pressure environment. Although scientists have improved it over time, the process still consumes an enormous amount of fossil fuels annually, and leads to the contamination of waterways and greenhouse gas emissions.
If the fossil fuel-free version of artificial nitrogen fixation sounds too good to be true, it is. As it stands now, the reaction Kanatzidis has discovered is even less efficient than the Haber-Bosch process – far too slow for successful commercialization.
But that isn’t Kanatzidis’ immediate concern. His lab continues to edit their nitrogen-fixing process to improve it for future use. Kanatzidis says even just the new possibilities created by this discovery, despite its infancy, are reasons to dream about a new, more sustainable world agriculture.
“This is an exciting prospect,” Kanatzidis says. “I think we will hear more about this.”
Kanatzidis has had a long journey through academia. He attended Aristotle University in Thessaloniki, then spent time doing postgraduate work at the University of Iowa, the University of Michigan and Northwestern. He worked for nearly two decades at Michigan State University (the team he sides with in the MSU-UofM rivalry, for curious Big Ten fans), but he always knew that he wanted to be on the other side of Lake Michigan.
Currently he serves as a Northwestern professor of chemistry and materials science, the head of the university’s Kanatzidis Research Group and a senior scientist at Argonne National Lab. As his work evolved, Kanatzidis challenged himself to pursue research with an immediate impact – things that could change society in five or six years, rather than decades, as is traditional with discoveries in inorganic chemistry.
“You try to make a difference in [real world] applications such as energy conversion, environmental remediation, radiation detection and things like this,” Kanatzidis says. “Even though the core of our program is trying to answer the question, ‘How do we discover a new material?’ the periphery can be even more important. Once we discover a new material [in the lab], what can we do with it that will make a difference in the world?”
The professor, who scoffs at the concept of free time and laughs at the idea of having hobbies, pours his heart into his work, comparing his various projects to children. Even his traveling – his favorite destination is Greece – is usually related to work, whether for graduate student recruitment or international conferences.
But Kanatzidis doesn’t mind, because he’s doing what he loves. He advocates that all students just try to find something that “clicks.” “If you find that passion, just dedicate yourself to it and don’t worry about the money or the glory. Just do it because you like it,” he says.
He pauses, smirking. “Both of these actually might come anyway.”