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Conference in Africa a dream come true for Prof Koch

A dream of nearly two decades has come true for chemistry professor Klaus Koch, when the 37th International Conference on Coordination Chemistry (ICCC) was opened on Sunday 13 August in Cape Town under his chairmanship.

Also serving on the steering committee were Stellenbosch University’s Marlene Milani, Prof Len Barbour and Dr Robert Lackay.

The weeklong conference was the biggest ever meeting of coordination chemists to be held in Africa, and saw 650 delegates from 60 countries discussing metals in biology, medicines, materials, nanostructures, devices, solutions, as well as coordination complexes in precious metals and photochemistry. Coordination chemists study the transition metal complex which forms when a metal is taken into a solution, such as water.

The plenary speakers included the 2005 Nobel Prize winner for Chemistry, Prof Robert Grubbs.

The 37th ICCC was the first event of its kind to be held in Africa since the inception of this series of meetings in the United Kingdom in 1950. Over the past five decades, the series of conferences has developed into one of the larger and longest continuously running international meetings of inorganic chemistry worldwide.

“It has been 20 years since I first attended the 24th ICCC in Athens, when I was inspired with the idea to one day see an ICCC in South Africa,” Prof Koch explains.

“In 1988 at Porto, at the traditional working dinner of the Executive Planning Committee in which future venues were discussed, I asked why not South Africa,” he remembers. “I vividly recall Professor Stanley Kirschner (executive permanent secretary) asking me how old I was!”

The South African bid to host the 37th ICCC met considerable competition from five other bidding countries, but was selected unanimously in Florence in 1998. Since then, Prof Koch and his steering committee that includes researchers from Stellenbosch, Cape Town, Johannesburg, Free State and the Western Cape, have been hard at work to ensure that everything goes according to plan.

“Although it is held on a smaller scale, for science in South Africa it is as major an event as the 2010 Soccer World Cup”, Prof Koch explains.
He says that South Africa’s richly endowed mineral wealth and the extraction of metals such as gold and platinum from ore rely fundamentally on coordination chemistry.
“The extraction of gold and the platinum metals would be inconceivable without an understanding of the specific coordination chemistry of these metals. The same goes for the numerous catalytic processes used by the unique coal-to-liquid fuel process perfected by Sasol in South Africa.”
What is coordination chemistry?
• It studies the transition metal complex which forms when a metal is taken into a solution, such as water. The resulting metal atom, which is usually charged, is usually unstable unless it binds to other simple or poly-atomic molecules. A new molecule is formed and regarded as a coordination complex. Coordination chemistry is thus the study of all aspects of the large number of metal complexes known to scientists.
• Examples: Coordination compounds are a very important class of chemicals, because examples such as chlorophyll, haemoglobin and Vitamin B12 all play an essential role in the biochemical processes of living beings. Many enzymes also contain a metal ion. Many dyes and pigment, for instance the blue colour of writing ink, are also metal complexes. It is used for medical diagnosis and therapy as contrast agents for magnetic resonance imaging (MRI), the active compounds in chemotherapy and in photodynamic therapy for the treatment of cancer.