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John Arnold and The Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry

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February 3, 2011

At UC San Diego in 1982, a young chemistry graduate student walked into his first classroom as a teaching assistant. Just a few weeks from the day he had arrived from Manchester, England, he began to address his students in his native Mancunian accent. The awkward silence in the classroom made him quickly realize that they could not understand what he was saying.

It was the beginning of one of many adventures for Berkeley professor and synthetic chemist John Arnold, who has traveled far from his working-class roots in the north of England, yet maintains the down-to-earth, no-fuss manner of a man who was supporting himself by age 16.

Born in 1959 in Chorley, now a suburb of Manchester, Arnold moved with his family at age 10 to Lancaster, about 40 miles to the north. He left Bentham Grammar School at 16, and instead of staying on for his A levels (roughly the equivalent of the junior and senior years of U.S. high school, followed by the SATs), he started work in a factory and enrolled in technical school.

“In 1975,” says Arnold, “I made 23 quid a week, gave five to Mum for food, and taxes took another five. I lived on the remainder. Four days a week I worked at the Storey Brother’s plastics factory in Lancaster. I spent one full day, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and one evening after work at local technical school, the Lancaster and Morecambe College of Further Education. My brother studied there to be a mechanic, and my sister to be a hairdresser.”

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Storey Brothers and Company had flourished during the Victorian era as a cotton mill that produced sailcloth and other fabrics. By the time Arnold began working for the company in 1975, it was making PVC plastic sheeting for shelving material, notebook covers and automobile seats. The factory closed its doors in 1982.

“The old Story Brothers factory was an amazing place,” recalls Arnold, “a hot, smelly, old-fashioned mill staffed by a cast of characters right out of a British sitcom. We measured our chemicals by the bucket. I was responsible for running a small PVC mill to determine the right amount of pigments to use to match the color samples provided by customers. It was not an exact science, and to the chagrin of the managers, sometimes I didn’t get it quite right.”

What Arnold did get right was his schoolwork. He earned the highest marks in his classes at tech school and was accepted to the University of Salford in greater Manchester. “But I couldn’t afford it on my own,” says Arnold.

Instead, Arnold continued working at Storey Brothers and attended tech school to earn what was called the Higher National Certificate (similar to a two-year AA degree in the United States). After two years, certificate in hand, he took advantage of an arrangement between Salford and Storey Brothers that allowed him to earn his undergraduate degree in applied chemistry in three more years. “For two years I worked full-time at the factory for half the year and attended the University of Salford for the other half. During the final year I attended Salford full-time, and graduated at age 23.”

Living in Manchester, Arnold was able to indulge his love of what Americans call soccer, but for the rest of the world is football. He lived just across the River Irwell from the Cliff Ground, the training field for the Manchester United football team. From there he could jump on a bus to United’s Old Trafford stadium.

“For five quid you could get a ticket for one of the paddocks,” says Arnold, “which back then didn’t have seats. You had to stand. It was fantastic, walking up to Old Trafford for a night game with thousands of fans, seeing the bright green pitch under the lights.” Manchester remains one the meccas of football. Today the redesigned Trafford stadium seats 76,000 spectators.

In his final year at Salford, Arnold worked in the campus’s radiochemistry lab, the “hot block.” There he began working with ruthenium 106, an interesting but unwanted byproduct of nuclear materials reprocessing. “As an undergraduate,” says Arnold, “I worked on making radioactive ruthenium tetraoxide, which is a highly volatile oxidizing agent. Today there is no way that a student would be allowed to work on such a dangerous chemical.”

But he survived the experience and learned something valuable in the process — he didn’t want to return to industry. He wanted to stay in academia and continue to work on transition metal chemistry.

What came next was pure serendipity. As Arnold tells it, “Salford had sent a student off to graduate school at UC San Diego, and he had been a success. A faculty member at Salford got a letter from San Diego saying, ‘Send us another one.’ When they asked me if I wanted to go I said, ‘Sure!’ Then I immediately went to the library for an atlas to find out where San Diego was.”

Arnold spent several weeks over the summer waiting tables and washing dishes at the motorway services near Burton-in-Kendall on the M6, and, as the fall rolled around, bought himself two suitcases and a one-way ticket to the United States. He boarded a train to London’s Gatwick airport, and from there a DC-10 flew him to Los Angeles. It was only the second time he had ever been on an airplane.

In San Diego Arnold rented a room in a converted garage and fell in love with the town and its balmy weather. Although he wanted to do transition metal chemistry, his struggles to find an advisor weren’t solved until the arrival in the fall of 1983 of a new assistant professor, Don Tilley. Tilley had earned his Ph.D. at UC Berkeley with Richard Andersen and had just returned from a postdoc at ETH Zurich.

Arnold was Tilley’s first graduate student, and together they set about building a lab. “It was a lot of hands-on work,” Arnold recalls. “Don was super bright and had good ideas. We worked in the lab day and night. By the third year I got the hang of it, and we produced lots of papers.”

Tilley returned to Berkeley in 1994 as a chemistry professor. Says Tilley of those early years in San Diego, “John was great to have as a first student — his training in technical chemistry and his experience in industry were quite valuable as we were setting up the new labs. He was very enthusiastic about inorganic synthesis and exploring new systems. He also played an important role in training newer students as they came along.”

In 1986 Arnold completed his dissertation, “Synthesis, structure, and reactivity of silyl derivatives of tantalum and niobium.” He landed a postdoc at Imperial College in London with Geoffrey Wilkinson, who had won the Nobel Prize in chemistry in 1973. Wilkinson had ties to UC Berkeley, including his postdoc with Glenn Seaborg from 1946-50. Wilkinson has also been the postdoc advisor for Berkeley chemistry professor Richard Andersen from 1974-76.

Arnold was accompanied by his girlfriend Jenny, whom he had met at UC San Diego in 1983. She had transferred to Berkeley the following year, and then began studying for her Masters degree in art history at the University of London. The two were married, in San Francisco, in 1988 and now have two children, Emily and William.

“Imperial College was in ‘South Ken,’ a great London neighborhood,” says Arnold. “For the first year we lived nearby in Chelsea, in a basement flat on Oakley Street near the Thames, then in a small house around the corner for the second year.”

South Kensington was a far cry from the cities and towns of the industrial north. Home of many of London’s great museums and bookshops, South Kensington was charming yet just affordable on an Imperial College salary, although since then it has become a favorite of wealthy foreign expatriates.

For Arnold, one downside of the neighborhood was its proximity to the stadium of the Chelsea football club, a perennial rival to his hometown team Manchester United. “There were a series of games in the late 60's when Chelsea beat United home and away, none of which endeared me to them,” he recalls.

Meanwhile, the chemistry research with Wilkinson was going well. Arnold says of his mentor, “He had this enormous enthusiasm for chemistry, and he gave me lots of freedom. Total blue sky research. He was a Yorkshireman, very straightforward, and I let him know on the first day that my goal was to return to the U.S. after working with him. He accepted that.

“Even though I landed a Royal Society fellowship in 1988 and could have stayed on at Imperial, I had already begun looking for jobs in the U.S. I got some nice offers and began at Berkeley in the summer of 1989. I started in 204A Lewis, which has been a lucky lab for its researchers, and with the help of glassblower Tom Lawhead I was up and running and making stuff my second week here.”

Arnold has been making stuff ever since. The focus of his earlier work in the 90’s was on organometallic chemistry and catalysis — focusing on understanding the fundamental chemical principals that formed the basis for catalytic processes in general.

The Arnold lab’s recent work has expanded into areas relating to energy and the environment. They are working on developing new fuel cell catalysts, investigating new reactivity with early transition metals and actinides, and are attempting to use nitrous oxide (N2O) in clean, catalytic reactions.

Since 2000, Arnold has been the Associate Editor for the Americas for Dalton Transactions, the Royal Society of Chemistry’s flagship journal of inorganic chemistry. “It’s been my honor to serve in this position and to watch the journal grow in size and stature,” says Arnold. “This job has taught me a lot about how publishing works and it’s been interesting to be in on the transformation from paper to electronic publishing.”

Arnold has exhibited a deft touch not only for journal editing and synthetic chemistry but for working with students as well. He won departmental teaching awards in 1994 and 2007. It is through listening to his students that Arnold became involved in the efforts on campus to develop more sustainable, “green” chemistry practices.

As the first director of the new Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry, he is quick to acknowledge his students. “The origin of the center is not the result of top-down decisions, but the bottom-up interest of our students,” says Arnold. “Marty Mulvihill, who was a joint student with Peidong Yang and myself, was a major force through his work in establishing the green chemistry graduate seminar course, and dean Rich Mathies deserves a lot of credit for helping to make the center happen.”

For Arnold, green chemistry is a philosophy not so much about what to make, but how to do it. He explains, “It’s about doing chemistry properly from start to finish, from using renewable inputs, to combining them in ways that use less energy and produce less toxic waste, and creating a product with a long life that can be recycled or biodegraded naturally.”

For now the new green chemistry center is attempting to pull itself up by its own bootstraps. Says Arnold, “The big government funding agencies and private foundations often have in mind specific projects with specific goals. They are less likely to part with their money to fund general operating expenses of a new center.” The center has received start-up funding from a generous private donor and a large grant from the California Environmental Protection Agency.

So once again John Arnold finds himself launched on a new adventure, although one on a familiar trajectory, and one that a scrappy kid from the north of England could understand — leaving behind gritty and dangerous chemical practices, striving to find the scientific principles to make new stuff in new ways, and struggling to cobble together the funding to do so.

And at the end of a busy week, after the courses have been taught, the graduate students advised, the journal articles reviewed, the next phase of the green chemistry center planned, after he has shuttled his own kids back and forth to soccer practice, perhaps there will be a chance to turn on the television, survey the bright green of the football pitch at Trafford stadium, and catch up with Manchester United.

More Information

Berkeley Center for Green Chemistry:
Arnold faculty webpage:
Arnold Research Group: