November 2014

Scientific Woman of the Year – The 2014 Irène Joliot-Curie Prize:
Hélène Olivier-Bourbigou, Head of research in the field of molecular catalysis at IFPEN

The 2014 Irène Joliot-Curie Prize, in the Scientific Woman of the Year category, was awarded to Hélène Olivier-Bourbigou, Head of research in the field of molecular catalysis at IFP Energie nouvelles (IFPEN) on Tuesday 18 November 2014 at a ceremony attended by Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, French Minister for National Education, Higher Education and Research, Geneviève Fioraso, Secretary of State for Higher Education and Research, and Pierre de Bausset, General Secretary of Airbus Group.

Hélène Olivier-Bourbigou

Hélène Olivier-Bourbigou began her career alongside Yves Chauvin (winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize in Chemistry), who supervised her doctoral thesis.

Hélène is now carrying out research at IFPEN on homogeneous catalysis for applications in the chemicals sector, employing a dual academic and industrial approach.

For the past 25 years, her research has been contributing to the global reputation and international influence of French catalysis. She is recognized as one of the leading world experts in her field.

What are the links between your research and chemistry?

H.O-B.: The aim of my research is to develop catalysts for industrial processes that transform petroleum and plant raw materials into substances with a higher added value for use by the chemicals industry (plastifiers, polymers, etc.). Catalysts are substances that accelerate chemical reactions and direct their selectivity. They play a key role in these raw material transformation processes, particularly in the chemicals industry, which employs them in 80% of its processes. Since this industry needs to reduce the environmental impact of its activities as well as its costs, enhancing catalyst performance boosts competitiveness. The purpose of our work, therefore, is to improve catalysts, generate faster reactions (energy savings), reduce overall catalyst consumption, reduce waste, etc… in line with a more sustainable approach to chemistry.

Have your discoveries led to industrial applications?

H.O-B.: Yes, the research work conducted by my Molecular Catalysis department has led to the marketing by Axens, an IFPEN subsidiary, of more than 100 industrial units located around the world. This has been made possible thanks to IFPEN's exceptional academic and industrial environment. At IFPEN, innovation is an integral part of our make-up. We take concrete industrial challenges - such as the optimization of energy spending or waste reduction, for example - and set about developing the appropriate innovations. I myself have always sought to identify advances in fundamental science with a constant eye on the potential industrial applications, an approach that I'm passing on to the team of researchers I lead today. With another scientific challenge to overcome: transform renewable raw materials, such as biomass, into fuels and substances for the chemicals industry.

What is it that drives you in your research work?

H.O-B.: Undoubtedly determination and a taste for risk, combined with unwavering scientific rigor and curiosity. At the very beginning of my career, for example, in order to develop more environmentally-friendly and cost-effective industrial processes, I created links between several disciplines and demonstrated the benefits of using ionic liquids (salts that are liquid at room temperature), previously applied in the field of batteries. I also spend a great deal of time training young people in research and via research, and passing on my experience so that they can tap into their creative potential and develop the innovations of tomorrow. I'm also keen to highlight the importance of catalysis, a little understood field and yet one that plays an increasingly important role in the industry and in the development of more efficient processes.

 Hélène Olivier-Bourbigou, Scientific Woman of the Year
• Author of 90 publications and 98 patents that have led to major scientific advances in the field of catalysis.
• Regularly invited to speak at the most prestigious international conferences.
• Has supervised or jointly supervised some twenty PhD students.
• Was elected President of the Catalysis Division of the Société Chimique de France in 2013.



  1. Iminobisphosphines to (Non-)Symmetrical Diphosphinoamine Ligands: Metal-Induced Synthesis of Diphosphorus Nickel Complexes and Application in Ethylene Oligomerisation Reactions. Boulens P., Lutz M., Jeanneau E., Olivier-Bourbigou H., Reek J.N.H., Breuil P-A.R., Eur. J. Inorg. Chem. (2014), 3754–3762  
    >> DOI: 10.1002/ejic.201402430
  2. Novel Catalytic System for Ethylene Oligomerization: An Iron(III) Complex with an Anionic N,N,N Ligand,  Boudier A., Breuil,P-A.R., Magna L., Rangheard C., Ponthus J., Olivier-Bourbigou H., Braunstein P., Organometallics (2011), 30(10), 2640-2642. 
    >> DOI: 10.1021/om200197s
  3. Ionic liquids and catalysis: Recent progress from knowledge to applications, Olivier-Bourbigou H.; Magna L.; Morvan D., Applied Catalysis, A: General (2010), 373(1-2), 1-56. ~396 Citings
    >> DOI: 10.1016/j.apcata.2009.10.008
  4. Oligomerization of monoolefins by homogeneous catalysts, Forestiere A., Olivier-Bourbigou H., Saussine L., Oil & Gas Science and Technology (2009), 64(6), 649-667.
    >> DOI: 10.2516/ogst/2009027
  5. Dimerization and codimerization, Olivier-Bourbigou H., Saussine L., Edited By: Cornils, Boy; Herrmann, Wolfgang A, Applied Homogeneous Catalysis with Organometallic Compounds (2nd Edition) (2002), 1, 253-265. ~21 Citing
    >> DOI: 10.1002/9783527619351