Nobel prize winner Molina gives lecture Nov. 10

Mario J. Molina, who won the 1995 Nobel Prize in chemistry for predicting that man-made chemicals would destroy the earth's protective ozone layer, will speak at the University Nov. 10.

His free, public lecture, "The Antarctic Ozone Hole," is intended for a general audience and will be held at 7 p.m. in Memorial Hall.

Molina's visit marks the second installment of the Chancellor's Science Seminar Series, a public lecture series featuring world-renowned researchers in the basic and applied sciences. The series aims to enhance public awareness of scientific challenges and discoveries, as well as to highlight research being conducted at Carolina, said Greg Forest, senior associate dean in the College of Arts and Sciences.

Molina, professor of chemistry and Earth, atmospheric and planetary sciences at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, was one of three scientists honored by the Nobel committee for research leading to an international ban on ozone-depleting chemicals. He shared the prize with F. Sherwood Rowland of the University of California at Irvine and Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany.

The Nobel committee said the scientists' work "contributed to our salvation from a global environmental problem that could have catastrophic consequences." The award represented the first time the Nobel committee recognized environmental research.

At ground level, ozone is a smog-producing pollutant. But at nine to 31 miles above the Earth, a thin layer of the gas protects living organisms from the sun's ultraviolet radiation. Without the ozone layer, most animals and plants would not survive. Significant depletion of the ozone layer can cause skin cancer, cataracts and immune-system damage in people.

In 1974, Molina, a postdoctoral fellow, worked in Rowland's lab at the University of California at Irvine. That year, they published a paper in the journal Nature outlining the threat posed to the ozone layer by chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases in aerosol cans, refrigerators, air conditioners and styrofoam.

Molina and Rowland reported that the chemically inert CFCs would be transported to the ozone layer, where intense ultraviolet light would break them down into reactive constituents, notably chlorine atoms. Chlorine atoms already were known to decompose ozone. If mankind continued to use CFCs, they warned, it would dramatically deplete the ozone layer and create a "hole" in the atmosphere.

Their 1974 paper stirred enormous controversy within political arenas and among environmentalists and manufacturers who used CFCs in consumer products. Even many scientists criticized their predictions.

But in 1985, their prediction became reality when other scientists discovered a hole in the ozone layer over the South Pole. Today, with the benefit of hindsight, scientists say that if anything, Molina and Rowland actually underestimated the real threat posed to the ozone layer.

Crutzen shared the Nobel prize with Molina and Rowland for showing that nitrogen oxides accelerate the rate of ozone reduction. His research was key to explaining the mechanism behind observed ozone depletion over Antarctica. Jointly, the scientific research conducted by Crutzen, Molina, Rowland and others led to the 1987 United Nations' Montreal Protocol, which banned the most dangerous CFCs. The ban took effect in 1996.

A native of Mexico City, Molina was fascinated with science as a youth. But having such an interest wasn't easy, he once said, "because the culture in Latin America is not one that praises science, particularly at that age. So I really had to struggle to keep my friends and keep at the same time my interest."

A naturalized American citizen, Molina is the first native scientist of Mexico to win a Nobel Prize. Now that he is an established researcher, Molina makes a concerted effort to encourage Latino students to pursue science studies. For example, he donated $200,000 of his Nobel winnings to help scholars from developing nations conduct environmental research at MIT.

"One of the important needs for global environmental issues is the participation of scientists from all over the world," he said. "We have some very big challenges ahead if we are to preserve the environment, and it's obvious that there are too few scientists from developing countries involved in the effort."

After winning the Nobel Prize, Molina continued to study why ozone was being depleted over the Antarctic in some of the coldest parts of the stratosphere. That phase of his research led to the discovery that relatively benign chlorine compounds can decompose in ice clouds, leading to the release of chemicals destructive to ozone. His latest research includes work on the interface of the atmosphere and biosphere, which is critical to understanding global climate-change processes.

Molina holds a chemical engineering degree from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico, a postgraduate degree from the University of Freiburg in West Germany and a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley. He joined MIT's faculty in 1989.

His honors include the Esselen Award of the American Chemical Society in 1987 and the Newcomb-Cleveland Prize of the American Association for the Advancement of Science for his 1987 paper in Science describing his work on Antarctic ozone hole chemistry. In 1989, he received the NASA Medal for Exceptional Scientific Achievement, and he was a Pew Scholar on Conservation and the Environment.

Sponsors of Molina's visit include Ford Motor Co.; Reichhold Inc.; the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's National Exposure Research Laboratory, part of the Office of Research Development and based in Research Triangle Park; Carolina Power and Light Co.; and LEARN North Carolina (Learners' and Educators' Assistance and Resource Network), part of the School of Education.

For more information on Molina and the lecture series, see

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