Michael Kwong: from cartoons to catalyst design

22 March 2017

A love of TV cartoons drew Michael Kwong Fuk-yee into a career in chemistry. Now Kwong is in the process of leaving his current position as professor and associate head of the Department of Applied Biology and Chemical Technology at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University to take up a new challenge. 

Kwong has accepted a new position in the Department of Chemistry at the Chinese University Hong Kong and hopes to add to his many achievements in the field of chemical technology.

“I want to contribute to my alma mater but I will retain the same areas of research interest,” he says. His work is focused on innovative catalyst design and development and new methodology for aromatic bond-construction processes.

Catalysis is the increase in the rate of a chemical reaction due to the participation of an additional substance and the production of most industrially important chemicals involves catalysis and it has become a critical technology for the pharmaceutical industry.

Kwong reports it was his boyhood love of TV cartoons and comic books and images of villains making bombs and colourful chemical potions in test tubes which made him first made him want to pursue a career in chemistry. Initially, he was attracted to pharmaceutical research but completed his degree in chemistry at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University before undertaking a PhD at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.  He was awarded a Croucher Postdoctoral Fellowship to complete post Doctorate studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in the USA but his route to international recognition as an eminent scientist was not all plane sailing.

“After MIT I was offered jobs in the USA but I returned to Hong Kong only to find on my arrival that the city was gripped by the SARS epidemic,” he remembers. Despite his glowing references, Kwong could not secure a job in research. It took more than half a year of searching before being offered a post as a Research Associate at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University by Professor Albert S.C. Chan, to whom he remains very grateful for giving him that opportunity.

In 2008, working with one of his students, he completed the molecular design of a catalyst structure and architecture that would enable unprecedented cross-coupling reactions.

“The catalyst enables a lot of the coupling reaction between two components so is very important for materials science and the pharmaceutical industry,” explains Kwong and his catalyst was of great commercial interest to the pharmaceutical industry for a number of reasons. It enabled bonding reactions at room temperature, was operationally simple, stable in air and cost saving.

“Pharmaceutical companies were very interested and contacted me because it enabled drug synthesis. My catalysts are now commonly found in chemical catalogues,” he says and explains that pharmaceutical companies using his catalysts can now use less expensive components and organic compounds that are more readily available.

In 2010 in collaborative project with Wuhan University, Kwong and his team made a breakthough by enabling cross coupling reaction without any transition metals. Small organic molecules without metals can also exhibit catalytic properties.

Recently Kwong has been exploring the carbon-carbon single bonds . The activation of C-C bonds offers a way of disconnecting such inert bonds, forming more active linkages (for example, between carbon and a transition metal) and eventually producing more versatile scaffolds.

“The catalyst is used to chop up the carbon chain onto pieces,” explains Kwong.

His team’s research has also been focused on the design and synthesis of new catalysts that can affect Carbon–Hydrogen (C-H) activation. It could enable the conversion of cheap and abundant alkanes into valuable functionalized organic compounds.

“Our long-term aim and research vision is using carbon C-C and C-H bond activation to convert an inexpensive product like wax into high value compound like aircraft fuel or gasoline,” he says adding that it may also be possible to change the molecular weight of a product so that a compound which might need transportation by ship but could subsequently be transported via pipeline.

Michael Kwong Fuk-yee is leaving his current position as Professor and Associate Head of the Department of Applied Biology and Chemical Technology at The Hong Kong Polytechnic University (HK PolyU) to take up the post as Professor of the Department of Chemistry at The Chinese University Hong Kong (CUHK). He completed his degree at HK PolyU and completed his PhD in Chemistry at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He worked at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a Croucher Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow and returned to Hong Kong as a Research Associate and Group Manager at HK PolyU. He was appointed as a Lecturer in 2004 and Associate Professor in 2010. He was awarded a Croucher foundation Senior Research Fellowship  in 2013 and was awarded the Second-class prize in natural science award from the Ministry of Education for his achievements in the design of the phosphine ligands and their applications in cross coupling reactions in 2014. He was presented with a Rising Star Award at the 41st ICCC 2014. He currently holds two US patents, one world patent and five China patents. Kwong has expanded the methodologies for catalyst design, and in the process built a library of such catalysts, thus providing a widely-published resource which can be used by the wider academic community and industry.

To view Dr Kwong’s Croucher profile, please click here.