French scientist Claude Grison has won a top European Inventor Award for her ‘green’ method of decontaminating polluted soils with metal-eating plants.

The award from the European Patent Office recognises the work of the University professor and research director at the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) to extract metal elements from the soil and use them as “ecocatalysts” to make new molecules.

Grison’s method helps decontaminate soil and provides a new source of catalysts, which could be used to produce biodegradable plastics, antimitotics (used in cancer treatment), capped DNA and RNA, cosmetics and key intermediates for fine chemistry.

From botany to chemistry

Grison’s invention was inspired by a question from her students as to whether metal-accumulating plants could be used to remediate old mining sites. She realised that if she could find a way to harvest the metal contained in the plants, it would open up a new source of materials such as zinc and nickel, which are used to make catalysts for the chemical industry. Few in the scientific community believed it was possible, but Grison was undeterred.

In 2011, she applied for a European patent for her method for extracting metals to produce catalysts, enabling her to commercialise her work. Grison and her team now use these ‘eco catalysts’ to produce new types of molecules for the chemical, pharmaceutical and cosmetics industries.

So far, the team has synthesised 5000 such biomolecules, which they are starting to commercialise, as well as a mosquito repellent with ingredients made by eco catalysis.

Grison said that despite being a research scientist, she is motivated by the potential impact of her work.

“I do not want to be a mere researcher; I want to be a citizen researcher. I want my research to be useful, so that it can be transferred towards society, that it ends up contributing, even if just a little, to solving a big problem,” she explained.

Grison was honoured in the Research category of the European Inventor Awards, a hybrid event watched online by a worldwide audience. The Award is one of Europe’s most prestigious innovation prizes and is presented annually to outstanding inventors from Europe and beyond who have made an exceptional contribution to society, technological progress and economic growth.

“Our Award recognises inventors that have demonstrated a new way of thinking. By marrying botany and chemistry, Claude Grison has found an original way to solve two problems simultaneously. First, her solution could help the chemical industry reduce its environmental impact. Then, she has tapped into a new source of raw materials highly valued by several industries,” explained António Campinos, President of the European Patent Office.

Claude graduated with a PhD in Molecular Chemistry from the University of Lorraine, France in 1987. Between 1994 and 2003 she was a Professor of Chemistry at the University of Nancy and from 2008 to 2013 at the University of Montpellier before accepting her current position at the CNRS (also at Montpellier) in 2016. She is named inventor of European patent EP2504096B1 (granted 2019), co-owned by the CNRS and the University of Montpellier.