Published on 4 June 2019
Thibault Cantat

Thibault Cantat is a researcher at the CEA and a chemist specialising in the chemistry of metals and their use in catalysis. For the past ten years, he has been tracking down the secrets of carbonaceous materials to transform them into a clean energy for tomorrow. This fundamental research also serves as a backdrop of societal commitment whom challenges are willingly shared by this young researcher to the general public and the political sphere.

In his laboratory at CEA Paris-Saclay (UMR NIMBE), Thibault Cantat is working on transforming CO2 and storing energy in the meantime. "This requires developing the chemistry of this small molecule to understand how to transform it into both useful chemicals and fuel from alternative energies (wind, solar), in order to store them," explains the researcher. For the main problem of mixed energy solutions remains their storage. "We would like to access electricity precisely when we need it most, when it is cold and there is no sun."


Break the carbon-oxygen bonds

For ten years, his team has been studying how to break the carbon-oxygen bonds, which are low in energy and present in CO2, to make them carbon-hydrogen bonds, which are highly energetic. The team is also interested in the recovery of plastic waste (polymer) or carbon monoxide (CO) from industrial fumes. It also collaborates with industrialists on a European project: "the objective is to recover CO and transform it into polymers, which avoids the use of petrochemical materials," explains Thibault Cantat.


Five minutes against thousands of years

Once the carbon-oxygen bonds have been "broken", the next logical step is to consider how to provide them with energy "with surgical precision," Thibault Cantat emphasizes. Finally, the best catalyst for this type of research must be found. "By synchronizing all the elementary chemical steps, this catalyst accelerates reactions without consuming energy. In five minutes, transformations that would need thousands of years are achieved!"


A green chemistry?

The researcher, who uses the term of "sustainable chemistry" for his research, notes that all the young people in his laboratory are very attached to the societal dimension of it. "This chemistry has been developed very little in the past. Oil was simply extracted from the subsoil, which contains only carbon-hydrogen and carbon-carbon bonds. We are going against the flow, promoting the emergence of a circular economy. However, when it will finally be possible of doing something about CO2, the costs will remain higher than those associated with the use of oil. To reduce them, we need political leverage." Thus, Thibault Cantat regularly meets with state institutions and the Council of Europe.


Shaping the real

"I do fundamental research to identify and eventually break the scientific and technical barriers," explains the young chemist, who became passionate about research at an early age. "You mix things that, in front of you, transform into something new. That's great!" The manipulations are quick and easy to set, which allows the chemist to carry out several at the same time. "From the idea to the result, via testing, we go very quickly, hence a fairly widespread competition between chemists," says Thibault Cantat.


A faultless journey

After studying at the ENS Paris, the young researcher defended his thesis at the École polytechnique in 2007, for which he received two prizes (best X thesis and ParisTech). He then completed a two-year post-doctoral fellowship at the Los Alamos laboratory in the United States, the American alter ego of the CEA. An enriching experience that took place at the very beginning of his career and made him work with a lot of freedom and means in a different cultural and scientific environment. In 2013 he was awarded the Grand Prix scientifique from the Louis D Foundation (CO2 chemistry) from the Institut de France, a rare event for a researcher at this time of his career. In addition to the pride of being rewarded by his peers, Thibault Cantat is also happy, thanks to the half a million euros received on this occasion, to have been able to develop the activities of his laboratory and to recruit very promising young researchers.