Prof. Debabrata Maiti of IIT Bombay awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize 2022

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1 Nov 2023
Prof. Debabrata Maiti

Prof. Debabrata Maiti, Professor at the Department of Chemistry and Interdisciplinary Programme in Climate Studies (IDPCS), Indian Institute of Technology Bombay (IIT Bombay), has been awarded the Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar Prize 2022 by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR). This award recognises his significant contributions applying the concept of valorisation.

The Shanti Swarup Bhatnagar (SSB) Prize, named after the founder Director of CSIR, is a prestigious award in Science and Technology in the country. As a recipient of this award in the Chemical Science category, Dr. Maiti will receive ₹5,00,000 as prize money, a citation and a plaque and a fellowship of ₹15,000 per month until the age of 65.

“The SSB Prize is a recognition of the hard work by all my students and researchers who have worked with me. It is the fruit of our teamwork and that makes it more exciting. IIT Bombay has been the best place to do research in India. Our Chemistry and IDPCS departments are having the perfect set up for cutting-edge research. Our Dean R & D office, Dean Faculty, all HODs, Deans, Deputy Directors and Director always encourage and provide us with the necessary support for carrying out the research at the highest level,” says Prof. Debabrata Maiti emphatically while reacting to this announcement.

Prof. Maiti has obtained a B.Sc. from the Ramakrishna Mission Vidyamandira Belur, University of Calcutta and then pursued a master’s from IIT Bombay securing the institute silver medal. He has then obtained his PhD from the Johns Hopkins University (2003-2008) followed by a research stint at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) as a postdoctoral fellow (2008-2010). He has been a faculty member at IIT Bombay since 2011.

“I have always been well supported by the administration as well as colleagues at IIT Bombay. The flow of appreciation that I received from my colleagues and students was absolutely overwhelming. Their support and encouragement has been a huge contributing factor to my career,” says Prof. Maiti.

“My family has always been with me through my highs and lows. They have been my source of motivation and strength all throughout my career” adds Prof. Maiti acknowledging the support received from his family.

Prof. Maiti’s work has been applying the concept of valorisation, which is critical to construct pharmacologically and industrially valuable chemicals from seemingly insignificant molecules.

“We take inspiration from nature and employ various tools like metal, light, enzymes etc. to figure out pathways for selective modifications of molecules which are often inaccessible in conventional chemistry,” remarks Prof. Maiti explaining his work.

In simpler words, Prof. Maiti's primary work focuses on catalysis and new reaction development.

"Catalysis is perhaps the most important topic of the current century. It changes the course of a reaction, making it easier to access under much simpler and milder conditions," explains Prof. Maiti.

"Catalysis impacts our day-to-day life in many ways, from agrochemicals to medicines and energy; you will see catalysis everywhere. Almost 35% of the global GDP is influenced by catalysis, which will only go up," notes Prof. Maiti emphasizing the importance of working on catalysis.

Sharing about his current work, Prof. Maiti adds, "I am currently working on what people call C–H activation. As synthetic chemists, we aim to make new, harder-to-access chemicals from easily available starting materials. Typically, this is done by using cost-inefficient and arduous multistep processes. Our goal is to shorten this pathway to a single-step process. Organic molecules typically contain lots of carbon-hydrogen (C–H) bonds. You can imagine that making new molecules would be much simpler and cheaper if you could somehow edit the C–H bonds into new chemical bonds."

It should be noted that editing the C–H bonds is not easy. The C–H bond energy, an indicator that states how easy or hard it is to break that bond, is typically high, making this process harder to achieve. There is also the question of selectivity.

"You don't want to activate all the C–H bonds of the molecules at the same time; that would not be of any practical use. There is also the question of selectivity when multiple similar C–H bonds are present in the molecule, and you only need to activate one," Prof. Maiti explains further.

In one of their recent work, Prof. Maiti and team developed a counter-intuitive chemical reaction to simplify the production of biologically important compounds. The reaction they developed activates unreactive carbon-hydrogen (C–H) bonds to form essential compounds called lactones found in natural products and pharmaceuticals.

With the push to promote manufacturing in India through ‘Make in India’ and many such initiatives, taking some of the economically important ones from lab to market has become critical for strengthening the rapidly growing economy. Undoubtedly, Prof. Maiti’s work offers much promise in this direction.

"Well, C–H activation has just started to show promises of delivering a sustainable and economical chemical transformation. However, we still have a big journey ahead of us. Hopefully, soon, we will be able to see complex molecules are routinely synthesized by using multiple C–H activation methods," concludes Prof. Maiti, highlighting the future direction of their research.