Frontier Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Sciences
Tohoku University

FRIS Interviews #14

FRIS Interviews#14

  • 田原 淳士Atsushi Tahara

    Assistant Professor

    Advanced Basic Science

    Research Fields

    Organometallic chemistry, organic chemistry

    Main Research Topics

    Transition metal-catalyzed functionalization of simple hydrocarbons

    Development of biomass materials for the carbon cycle

    Computation-driven catalyst development through the fusion of theory and experimentation


Solving environmental issues with MY own chemistry while
incorporating diverse perspectives without any restriction of research field

Meeting my supervisor of Ph.D student was a turning point for my story

Please tell us about your childhood.


I grew up in a small hot spring town called Nagato Yumoto Onsen, in Yamaguchi Prefecture, Japan. It’s also known as the hometown of Misuzu Kaneko, a children’s poet who wrote poems such as Kodama deshou ka? (Is that an Echo?; a poem about relationship between people) and Watashi to Kotori to Suzu to (Me and Little Birds and Bells; a poem telling that everyone is different, and everyone is good). Surrounded by mountains and the sea, the area has a rich natural environment. While the views along the coast recently has attracted many tourist such as Motonosumi Inari Shrine and Tsunoshima island, my home is located deep in the mountains, not by the coast, and have been running a pottery studio making Hagiyaki, a local pottery in Yamaguchi. It seems plain and simple at first glance, but it really matches many foods and drinks, and make our dining more sophisticated. In Japanese tea ceremony circles, many people have used Hagiyaki with green tea, as expressed “First Raku, second Hagi, third Karatsu,” which indicates the popularity of different pottery wares. My father is currently the 13th-generation potter in our family.

Did you ever have any desire to make pottery yourself, considering you were born into that kind of family? What made you go for a career in science?


No particular reason stands out for why I chose science, but my older brother may have been a big factor. During our childhood, he was kind and often made toys for me—things like bamboo dragonflies or frog Origami. On the other hand, I enjoyed playing the toys my older brother produced for me rather than making them by myself. He was good at handwriting, drawing, crafting, and pottery too, of course, and now he also works as a potter with my father. On the other hand, my “clay art” in my childhood was just a number of dinosaurs and robots, and a little bit of teacups were too pathetic enough to realize my future as a professional other than a potter (LOL). Anyway, I’m proud of my father and brother.

What led you to enter the 4th Academic Group at Tokyo Institute of Technology?


Back then, I was someone who enjoyed completing a given task in a given environment. It’s the perfect personality for solving problems in subjects like mathematics and physics. I spend six years including all junior high / high school terms by enjoying it at a small local cram school. One of my mentor suggested I try to get into 4th Academic Group at Tokyo Institute of Technology, which was one of the top places to study science in those days. I studied harder and passed the entrance exam.

But despite working so hard to be admitted, you transferred from the 4th Academic Group, right?


That's right. Incidentally, Tokyo Institute of Technology recently reorganized its academic structure, and in 2016, it became the first university in Japan to unify its undergraduate and graduate programs, creating what it calls “schools.” Back when I started, the 4th Academic Group was mechanical engineering, but these groups were rather loosely defined, so, after completing first year, you got to decide which course you want to specialize in from the next year. In April 2005, in my second year, I transferred to what was then the 3rd Academic Group, taking the Applied Chemistry Course in Chemical Engineering, School of Engineering. So yes, I switched from mechanical to chemical engineering. I had been studying with the aim of getting into university, so I felt extremely satisfied when that dream actually came true. But when I stopped and paid attention, I noticed that a lot of my colleagues kept their motivations such as : “I want to develop rockets in this laboratory,” or “I want to build the kind of robots that can only be built here.” Inspired by these friends, I thought to myself— seriously, probably for the first time ever in my life—“What do I really want to do?'' That’s when I realized that I had a vague interest in environmental issues. I’d been interested in elementary quantum mechanics since the time I was in senior high school. This is considered a part of physics through high school, but at university level it is sometimes classified as chemistry—physical chemistry, to be precise. So I decided to switch to chemistry. I experienced lots of difficulties both before and after I transferred, but I am grateful to my friends who supported me in both (mechanical and chemical) groups.

And after the changing, you met the teacher who became your mentor “for your life”.


Exactly. While I was in fourth year undergrad, I joined the laboratory of Professor Hiroharu Suzuki, who specializes in organometallic chemistry and is currently a professor emeritus at Tokyo Institute of Technology. I must say that meeting him was my turning point. Not only is Suzuki-sensei a pioneering researcher, he is also an educator and someone you’d describe as a person of character. The guidance I received from him, together with the six years we spent together, were truly wonderful. I’m repeating myself, but I’m the kind of person who becomes obsessed with overcoming the obstacles that are placed before me. Prof. Suzuki’s approach, on the other hand, is to turn things you would consider impossible into things that are possible. Using molecules developed by himself, he set his own challenges and decided how to tackle them. It looked like he really enjoyed the process. In other words, he creates something out of nothing. This seemed very novel to me (even though my brother showed me). Under his supervision, I spent my fruitful six years to research our organometallic chemistry. And when it came time to choose a career path, I thought once again about what I’d like to become, and decided that I want be a scholar and a researcher just like Suzuki-sensei.

Are you still in touch with him?


I am. The pandemic has made things difficult, but I still say hello each time I go on a work trip to Tokyo, and he’s a pottery lover also, so he often comes to see the show when my father or brother have an exhibition in Tokyo. When I got the position at FRIS, he was delighted and offered me words of encouragement, saying: “You’re in a great environment there, so give it all you’ve got. Your big challenge starts now.” Prof. Suzuki still works in an advisory position at one of Japan’s research institutes; his passion for chemistry hasn’t changed.

Tell us a little about organometallic chemistry, which you worked on under Prof. Suzuki.


As the name suggests, organometallic chemistry is a field of study that deals with organometallic compounds. “Organometallic compound" is a word you may not be familiar with. Carbon materials that are synthesized in living organisms are organic compounds. On the other hand, metals such as minerals are inorganic. Compounds in which these seemingly incompatible substances—specifically, metals and carbons—are bonded are called organometallic compounds. In the old days, it was thought that organic substances and metals could not be connected, but about 200 years ago, molecules having transition metal-carbon bonds were discovered. That marked the starting point of the science of organometallic chemistry. The maximum number of electrons that can be retained around an atom is different for transition metals and main-group elements such as carbon. A great deal of fundamental researches have been done to understand the particular type of bonding involved. Through the process, it has been revealed that the molecular conversion of organic compounds can be achieved with the assist of organometallic ones, despite it being difficult only with organic compounds. “Molecular conversion” means the changes such as connecting or shortening carbon chains, or attaching oxygen to carbon to make it soluble in water, for example. Many Japanese researchers are active in organometallic chemistry, and you are probably aware that the Nobel Prize in Chemistry has also been awarded in the field, for example in 2001 for asymmetric hydrogenation and 2010 for cross-coupling reaction. In addition to this, organometallic compounds are being applied in various other fields such as materials science and bioscience. I am leveraging organometallic chemistry to investigate whether chemically stable compounds for which molecular conversion is usually impossible—substances such as carbon dioxide, oil, coal, or methane gas, for example—can be converted into useful chemical substances.

Please remind us your studies and career after graduation at Tokyo Institute of Technology.


In April 2008, I enrolled in Applied Chemistry in the Graduate School of Science and Engineering, Tokyo Institute of Technology, and in 2011 and 2012, was one of the recipients of the Research Fellowship for Young Scientists at the Japan Society for the Promotion of Science (JSPS DC2). In 2012, I visited Ludwigshafen, Germany for an internship held at the chemical manufacturer BASF. I got my master’s, then went on to a Ph.D, completing the doctorate program in March 2013. The following month, I joined the Institute for Materials Chemistry and Engineering (IMCE), Kyushu University as an assistant professor from 2013 to 2021. In 2016, I also learnt polymer chemistry as a visiting researcher at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. I started my current position as assistant professor at Frontier Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Sciences (FRIS), Tohoku University in 2021. Since that time, I’ve held a concurrent post under the project Leading Initiative for Excellent Young Researchers (LEADER) at JSPS.

Did you continue same research field throughout this period?


I’ve been moving between several research topics that all have one thing in common: organometallic chemistry. When I was in Tokyo Institute of Technology, my research interest was transformation of hydrocarbyl ligands derived from simple hydrocarbons on transition metal centers—very fundamental organometallic chemistry with a focus on metal centers, named as “complex (coordination) chemistry”. After moving to Kyushu University, my research target was shifted to the development of organic reactions catalyzed by organometallic compounds—an applied organometallic chemistry with a focus on organic substrates, named as “catalysis chemistry”. During this research, I also studied different research fields such as computational science and chemical engineering. At Tokyo Institute of Technology, a triruthenium organometallic cluster was synthesized for activation and transformation of inert substrates such as simple hydrocarbons (alkanes, arenes), which is included in petroleum. All of interactions between the metal and carbon was unique, so I researched the details by using a special techniques or a measurements. The resulting complexes are instable toward air, so I learned experimental techniques to handle the compounds without exposing them to air. These results are regarded as fundamental chemistry.

On the other hand, at Kyushu University, my research goal was replacement of rare metal catalysts (Pd, Ir, Rh, Pt) to abundant base metals (Fe, Co, Cu) for organic reactions based on the concept “the Element Strategy Initiative idea”. As the word “rare” implies, these metals exist only in small quantities, and as they are also expensive to acquire, the current situation is not a good one from the perspectives of both global resources and market prices. Iron, on the other hand, is naturally abundant. Using iron has the benefits of less environmental impact and keeping product prices down. However, there is a reason why rare metals, which are available in small amounts, are so valuable: the difference in reducing property. Put simply, they are more resistant to rust, and this makes them suitable for reduction reactions with organic substances. Iron is prone to rust, as you know, and so is considered unsuitable for reduction reactions. But it’s not the iron’s fault that it rusts, right? So, what can we do to fully utilize the capacity and positive features of this element? While discussing the problem with professors at the lab, we successfully developed reduction and addition reactions for organic compounds using iron, not exposing it to air and by designing a molecule with enhanced reducing power.

These research results have quite an industrial aspect, as they have been applied to the development of the silicone resins that we use everywhere. In addition, through the design of organometallic compounds, I also succeeded to reduce the amount of rare metals required for organic molecular conversion to one millionth (1/1,000,000) of the amount. I also started working with computational science while at Kyushu University. Because iron is paramagnetic, several spectroscopic analyses were impossible, so I tried to obtain an understanding of the invisible molecular structure through computational science. Under the guidance of professors at the same lnstitute who specialize in this field, I was able to establish a research method of problem solving through a fusion of theory and experimentation.

As a side note, while I was at Tokyo Institute of Technology, I relied on advanced experimental techniques and unique experience in my aim to create a kind of science that only I was capable of. Meanwhile, when I was at Kyushu University, I was exposed to the importance and value of creating a science that is possible for anyone, one that can be reproduced by anyone, anywhere. Developing these two extreme viewpoints was a positive experience for me.

During Kyushu university, I met Associate Professor Shinji Kudo, a specialist in chemical engineering at Kyushu University, who had a significant impact on me. In parallel with the above research, I was lucky enough to be able to conduct joint research with him as part of an in-house collaboration with young researchers at the Institute for Materials Chemistry, Kyushu University, where I was working at the time. I was involved in the development of a steel manufacturing system, working with approaches used with complexes in chemistry, putting to use the know-how I had cultivated over the years dealing with organic molecules and iron compounds bonded to them. Working collaboratively like this, I witnessed many of the cultural differences that exist between specialized fields, and my perspective suddenly expanded. One example concerns homogeneous reactions, in which molecules are dissolved in a solvent. In organic and organometallic chemistry, this is generally done at temperatures below 200°C, with 180°C being considered an ultra-high temperature. However, in chemical engineering, which works with ironmaking processes where temperatures over 1,000°C are common, things are seen quite differently, with temperatures below 500°C considered as “low-temperature reactions”. For me, this represented a huge culture shock.

Also significant was the conversion reaction of organic molecules, which is difficult in homogeneous system, but happens rapidly at around 300°C. This took me beyond everything we learn about in organic chemistry, such as selectivity in reactions and differences in the electric polarity of atoms, meaning their positive or negative charge. On the other hand, the kind of delicate reactions that are required for drug development are difficult to achieve, and so working with precise organic synthesis has been limited in this field. This collaborative research experience made me consider the many possibilities for interdisciplinary work between precise organic synthesis and dynamic chemical engineering. This then brings up how to confront the essential issue of the fusion of theory and experimentation. And it moves me toward solving the problem of using actual technology to enhance the functionality of carbon resources and make them recyclable, a problem that has been lying hidden in the field of chemical engineering. What I am trying to say is that this brought me to my current research theme at FRIS.

Using approaches from organic and organometallic chemistry to create a
new kind of society based on carbon recycling

Please tell us about your current research themes.


Creating value and providing functionality have come to be viewed as difficult for carbon resources as a chemical resource. The aim of my research is to create a new kind of society based on carbon recycling using approaches from organic and organometallic chemistry to improve the functionality of carbon resources and make full use of things like molecular simulations. What I am researching can broadly be divided into three categories, but the one key component that runs through all three is “carbon resources”. The first category is simple hydrocarbons found in natural gas, oil, and coal. The second is carbon dioxide, and the third is biomass compounds. Currently, all three are more along the lines of basic research, but it’s the molecular conversion of carbon dioxide that is leaning the most toward social implementation. This is largely due to the influence of Prof. Kudo, with whom I did the joint research.

A lot of research is currently being done on the recycling of carbon dioxide in both industry and academia. What I am trying to do, however, is take carbon dioxide and create a molecule called oxalic acid, a product that has not received all that much attention. The structure of carbon dioxide molecules is oxygen, carbon, oxygen (O=C=O), right? Since oxygen has a lot of electrons, the carbon in the middle has a positive charge. However, the oxalic acid we are trying to make requires the bonding of positively charged carbon atoms with each other and it’s quite a difficult reaction. It’s not a good idea in organic reactions. This is because when attaching carbon dioxide, the common practice is to attach it to somewhere negatively charged. So it’s difficult, but that’s the very reason I want to do it. Thus far, I have found a way of synthesizing oxalic acid using a reduced form of carbon dioxide that is safer and more efficient than conventional methods. This is difficult to achieve with organic reaction techniques, but by making use of chemical engineering know-how and conducting the reaction at temperatures above 200°C, I have been able to successfully synthesize oxalic acid. Currently, I am working on the direct synthesis of oxalic acid from carbon dioxide using approaches from organometallic chemistry.

Another reason why oxalic acid does not attract much attention is social demand. Oxalic acid is generally used for mineral metallurgy and dyeing, but the market for it is not so large due to considerations such as being toxic to humans. This may lead you to wonder why you would want to make it, then. Using oxalic acid that I have synthesized, I want to make my contribution to realizing Prof. Kudo's next-generation steel manufacturing system, which works with this acid. In the existing steel-manufacturing process, coke is used as a reducing agent, but our joint research shows that when it is replaced by oxalic acid, significant improvements are seen in the reaction temperature and the quality of the resulting iron. The oxalic acid consumed in this process is decomposed into carbon dioxide, but if it can be recycled back into oxalic acid, we can create a new iron-making cycle in which carbon circulates. Approximately 30% of carbon dioxide emissions in industry are said to come from steel manufacturing, so we would be looking at a truly major positive impact if this could be implemented socially.

Prof. Kudo specializes in chemical engineering, and this enabled me to take into consideration the total energy balance throughout the entire system, which is a definite strong point. For example, while it is already possible to synthesize oxalic acid from carbon dioxide using electrochemical methods, you need to calculate whether the energy cost for production is reasonable. Conversely, even if a reaction temperature of around 200 to 300°C is required, the heat source coming from blast furnace of steel manufacturing can be diverted, making it possible to establish a plant. Future considerations will need to include market prices and safety, in addition to the volume of carbon emissions.

One of your research themes has brought us closer to having a carbon cycle in steel manufacturing, right?


Yes. Furthermore, although I had not anticipated this when starting the research, oxalic acid has begun to attract attention overseas as a potential next-generation feedstock replacing petroleum. I’m also glad that I’ve been able to begin research on its synthesis ahead of market activation. I started the other two research projects after I took up my position last year, and so they are still in the basic research stage, but I’ve obtained some very good results over the past year. I am working on my research with the hope that I will be able to publish impactful papers sometime during my tenure.

I can appreciate the immense value of the carbon cycle that would be be a product of your research. What does research mean to you, may I ask?


Having talked about trying to “be useful for society” and having my work implemented, for me actually, research is like an art; it’s a kind of self-expression. Even when reading just one paper written by someone, we get a sense of who wrote it. For example, I might find a particular approach really typical of a certain researcher. Another reason I say this is because there are many situations that I find instinctively beautiful as I’m researching. For example, when I got to see the three-dimensional structure of an organometallic compound through single-crystal X-ray analysis, I could notice the sence of art in my feeling. I also sense some similarities between research and the pottery-making that both my father and older brother pursued. I still feel a little shaky as a researcher, but someday, I’d like to publish a paper that strongly express a sense of this researcher Atsushi Tahara—as is the case for Prof. Suzuki’s research or my father’s pottery works. To put it another way, I’d like to establish a “Tahara’s Chemistry.” It’s one of my major goals.

Casual little chats can get so exciting.
Those moments when you gain and offer insights, and something new is born.

How did you first learn about FRIS?


When I look at myself objectively, I see myself as the type of person who can feel implications in the borderlines between different fields. I have always been fascinated by the mixing of organic and inorganic, of experimentation and theory, of precise organic synthesis and dynamic chemical engineering. The Frontier Research Institute for Interdisciplinary Sciences (FRIS), where I now am, contains the word "interdisciplinary" in its name and places great value on the fusion of different fields. I was amazed when I learned about it, and I put in an application, thinking it was a perfect fit for me. In my case, my application also included the post in the project Leading Initiative for Excellent Young Researchers (LEADER) at JSPS, which was an appealing bonus. This project supports the development of an independent research environment for young teaching staff. With significant support from the government, the university, and FRIS in terms of research funds and the research environment, I’m able to take charge of the research that I want to do, as I’ve just mentioned. Of course, this would not be possible without the understanding and support of the university, FRIS, and the other researchers, so I cannot thank everyone enough for their kind support.

Since joining FRIS, have there been things that have indeed struck you as amazing?


I have found real value in those moments when you share thoughts with someone outside your field of expertise, when you gain and offer insights, and something new is born. These kinds of moments are especially likely to come up when you are on site and have casual talks about your research outside of work. When you meet online, the meeting can end with just the barest minimum of interaction, but things are different when you meet on site. Meeting people face to face is very meaningful. FRIS researchers really do have so many different things on their radars. Because of the pandemic, we were only able to have a few on-site research presentations last year. We’d stand around and talk afterwards, and I remember almost trembling with excitement about the way these conversations expanded multidimensionally. The first time I took part was last winter. This is something that makes me genuinely happy that I joined FRIS.

Those moments when values change—in a good way—are really rare and important. For example, moments like when someone shares an opinion that reflects a different perspective, saying something like: “When I consider your research from the perspective of my own field of study, this is how I see it.” We point things out to each other and might end up getting inspired at the possibility of being able to cross-fertilize, so to speak. But it doesn’t end with just talk. What’s really nice about FRIS is that it’s really easy to bring things like this to life right away. On top of that, when researchers decide they want to go ahead, the FRIS director, Professor Toshiyuki Hayase, will respond with something like: “If that’s how you’re feeling, let’s have FRIS support it,” and it starts to become a reality. This way of having young faculty member’s ideas come to fruition is something unique to FRIS, I believe. Compared to before, it looks like we are going to have more FRIS Hub Meetings (monthly lectures held by FRIS) and other events here this year, so I’m sure we’re going to see more examples of new initiatives and fusion. It would be even better if we could organize some drinking parties too (LOL).

What kind of researchers do you think would get a lot out of FRIS?


In my opinion, FRIS is the kind of research institute that anyone in any field will get a lot out of. Being here makes you reconsider things like just how overly specialized your way of thinking or your approach to research is. It also makes you come to understand how you should be giving your presentations so that they are understandable and enjoyable for a large number of people. I can guarantee that anyone joining FRIS will have their horizons broadened.

Please tell us about something specific that you were able to engage with because of the unique environment at FRIS.


Well, even though I’ve just launched into my second year at FRIS and my joint research had not yet yielded any results, I am often having discussions about research with one of the other researchers at FRIS who is also working on organometallic chemistry and complexes. There is also another researcher at FRIS who had been working with metals like me, but in a different field. Based on that, I presented a proposal that I hope will develop into an internal collaboration in the future. It’s slightly tangential to your question, but there is another researcher who joined FRIS when I did and whose collaborator on research turned out to be an old classmate from my junior high school days. I was surprised at how small the world is. I hope it’s not too assertive to suggest that this could be a testament to the diversity of people at FRIS doing such wide-ranging research.

What kind of researcher do you aspire to be in the future?


Both my father and Prof. Suzuki created unique worlds in their original fields of expertise by incorporating their own interests and experiences. Personally, I would also like to look at the world of science from many different perspectives rather than limiting myself to organometallic chemistry, and based on this, to establish a “Tahara Chemistry.” The kind of researcher I aspire to be is one who can convey the joy of research to other researchers and students through my own enjoyment.

Is there anything you feel is necessary for FRIS as it continues to develop?


Looking to the future, it’s clear that the fusion of different fields of study is going to be significant, not only in Japan but in other countries too. Consequently, if FRIS works seriously with its mottos of “interdisciplinary” and the “fusion of different fields,” making the unique systems within the institution even more robust, this is sure to enhance its value. With that in mind, I feel there are many common practices in universities overseas that should be adopted by universities here in Japan. These practices and systems are worthy of emulation, and if FRIS were to take the lead in introducing them, I’d expect it to be capable of shaking up the future of Japan’s national universities. I’d like to also play my part in helping FRIS be able to develop as more strongly unique institute.

(Interview conducted in May 2022)