‘We have to reduce pollution now’

Per-Ola Norrby was interested in chemistry already as an 11-year-old when he sold homemade gunpowder to his classmates. Today he uses his interest for healthier purposes.
‘Green chemistry is ultimately a matter of humankind’s survival,’ he says.

If you Google ‘Per-Ola Norrby’, his Twitter account will come up as the fifth hit. Once there, it soon becomes apparent how active he is and how he moves back and forth between different subjects – one moment he discusses the U.S. loan ceiling, the next discrimination with Jonas Gardell. But most of the time his posts are about chemistry.

‘I’m having a lot of fun with Twitter! A few hours before the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2013 was announced, I tweeted correct guesses for two of the three winners. That gave me a whole bunch of new followers,’ he says, laughing.

THE Nobel priZE 2013 is about modelling of chemical processes, an area Norrby has been involved in pretty much throughout his whole career in chemistry. Due to allergy problems, he worked less and less in the lab and ended up almost accidently in the world of molecular modelling, and had to learn everything about computer modelling of chemical reactions on his own.

After a postdoc in California in the early 1990s and 13 years in Denmark, he applied for a professorship at the University of Gothenburg in 2006. It was in connection with this transition that he started working with green chemistry – a concept coined 20 years ago in USA.
‘In a nutshell, green chemistry is about not using up all the resources and not polluting, and as an extension to this about the survival of humankind. While some resources may last for 200 years, there are others that we soon need to find alternatives to, and we have to reduce the pollution now.’

NORRBY’S MODELLING and green chemistry recently landed him a part-time position at AstraZeneca. The pharmaceutical company wants to make the chemical reactions as clean and effective as possible in the development of new drugs, and Norrby’s models can help them understand and predict chemical reactions better. The work has to do with molecules and their mirror images.
‘Many molecules have mirror images,’ he says. ‘It’s like your body having a left and a right side, where only your right hand fits in a right-hand glove. These molecules can have completely different characteristics in the body, and medicines may end up having serious side effects if the characteristics of a mirror image have not been fully explored.’

ONE OF THE MOST well-known examples of this is the so-called Thalidomide scandal in the 1960s, when the use of Thalidomide among pregnant women led to uncountable births of deformed babies. It turned out that the mirror image of the active substance damaged the foetus.
‘The aim of my research is to develop society-oriented clean chemistry. Sometimes you can’t expect quick results. A lot of today’s research is goal oriented and short term, leaving fewer opportunities for the more curiosity-based, long-term research and for follow-ups of interesting discoveries that are not directly linked to the goals of the projects in question.’

Per-Ola Norrby

Job: Professor of Organic Chemistry
Age: 51
Family: Wife (also in Chemistry), two grown children
Other interests: Sings in a choir (at the moment Akademiska kören) and has done so since his student years.