Obituary - Professor Paul O'Brien FRS FREng CEng FIMMM

Fellows' Lounge
13 Nov 2018

Professor Paul O'Brien FRS FREng CEng FIMMM 1954-2018

Paul O’Brien was a well-loved academic whose work to generate new soft processing pathways to semiconductor materials led to successful spin outs and was also a key innovator in moving African science forward.

The field of nanomaterials was emergent in the 1980s and attracted a range of scientists from many varied backgrounds.  From physicists to microscopists, arguably no other role was more important than those materials chemists who could actually produce materials from scratch within their labs for study by others. Paul O’Brien, affectionately known by colleagues as ‘POB’, was a practising inorganic chemist at the time of these new revelations in science. His study of metals and their interaction with amino acids with a view to their biological interaction was by that time established, but it was when he turned his hand to looking at how inorganic complexes could produce nanomaterials that was a career-defining moment.  His first forays into materials science began by looking at epitaxial growth of nanomaterials including cadmium sulphide and zinc sulphide. However it was after the publication of a paper in 1996 when things started to take a turn into materials chemistry proper; O’Brien and his team devised a route that would become a generalised pathway to a range of metal chalcogenide materials in the form of ‘quantum dots’ – small nanocrystallites of materials whereby control of length scale determines the properties of the material.  Eventually this research would lead to the spin out of Nanoco Technologies Ltd in 2001, that now provides a range of cadmium-free quantum dots for high end displays and bioassays.  Paul later went on to work in fields as diverse as inorganic thin films for solar energy applications as well as new inorganic graphene analogues.

The son of Thomas and Maureen O’Brien (nee Graham), Paul was born on 22 January 1954.  He was educated at Cardinal Langley Grammar School in Middleton, Greater Manchester and went on to study Chemistry at the University of Liverpool where he was awarded a Bachelor’s degree with honours in 1975.  He went on to study for a PhD degree with Professor Robert D Gillard  at University College, Cardiff, awarded in 1978. He was appointed a lecturer at Chelsea College in London and in 1984 moved to Queen Mary College, London (now Queen Mary University of London) where he was eventually appointed as Professor.  In 1995 he moved to a joint Professorship between Victoria University of Manchester School of Chemistry and the Materials Science Centre jointly run by Victoria University of Manchester and UMIST. From 2002 he was head of the Department of Chemistry at the newly-merged University of Manchester and was instrumental in bringing harmony in place of the traditional cross-town rivalry. From 2011 to 2015 he was head of the School of Materials at the University of Manchester and enjoyed a joint appointment between both schools of Chemistry and Materials.   He retired on 31 July 2018 and was appointed Emeritus Professor. His colleagues will remember mainly that he was inspiring, fun to be around and never short of a pithy comment or two, to the delight of all.

O’Brien was one of the UK’s most eminent academics. His research outputs garnered over 700 publications in peer-reviewed journals with over 20,000 citations and a Hirsch index of 75. His most cited research paper is a comprehensive study of the growth of zinc oxide from chemical baths. He was the editor of the Nanoscience Specialist Periodical Reports book series from the Royal Society of Chemistry, and acted as an editor for Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society A.  O’Brien was the recipient of many awards most notably the IOM3 Platinum Medal in 2014 and the Royal Society of Chemistry Longstaff Prize in 2016. He also received the Colin Humphreys Education Award in 2011 and the Kroll Medal in 2007 from IOM3. Elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 2013, and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Engineering in 2016, he was appointed a Commander of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (CBE) in the 2016 New Year Honours list. He graduated over 100 PhDs.

Significantly, O’Brien was one of the first UK academics to champion research in historically black universities in the post-apartheid age across Africa. He graduated a number of African students from his group, and was a key innovator in moving African science forward; at the time of his death he was involved in a £1M capacity building initiative with the Royal Society and Department for International Development (DFID) on new materials for solar energy generation and involving Universities in Ghana, Cameroon and South Africa. Many of his African colleagues refer to him as their ‘Father of Chemistry’.

O’Brien enjoyed hill-walking, camping with his family, reading, theatre and travel. He passed away peacefully at his home in Wilmslow surrounded by his family and loved ones on 16 October 2018 after a short illness.  He is survived by Dr Kym O’Brien (nee Evans), a toxicologist whom he married in 1979 during his time at Cardiff University. 

Dr D J Lewis University of Manchester