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£12.9 million investment promises stronger, greener UK

Issue date:
31 January 2013
Type:
Press release 

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is investing £12.9 million in the UK Catalysis Hub, a UK-wide research programme into catalytic science focused on supporting UK economic growth while helping reduce CO2 emissions, produce cleaner water and generate more sustainable energy.

David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science said:  “Catalysis science is vital for many areas of the UK economy, from food production to pharmaceuticals. This investment will provide a focal point for the UK’s leading expertise in this area, helping scientists further develop their skills and undertake cutting edge research to drive sustainable growth.”

Catalysts speed up chemical reactions making them possible on useful timescales. Catalysis science is at the heart of key industrial processes both current and in the future and virtually all manufactured goods at some point in their manufacture involve the use of a catalyst.

Key examples are:

  • Environmental applications – the clean-up of transport and industrial emissions
  • Product synthesis – e.g. fertilisers, explosives, fuels, drugs, fibres, polymers
  • Efficient production of clean fuels, biofuels and clean water.

Companies based in the UK play a big role globally in all these areas and generate wealth of £50 billion per annum as well as intellectual property for UK plc. Catalysis is critical to the country’s chemical, energy, pharmaceutical, food, personal care and materials sectors; development of catalysis is also key to emerging sectors such as industrial biotechnology.

The UK has world-class strength and capability in catalysis and process engineering, with EPSRC having funded £28.5 million of catalysis research from 2006-2011. The new research programme builds on this expertise and support.

David Delpy, Chief Executive of EPSRC, said: “The UK has some outstanding researchers in the field of Catalysis, and it is a vital field for UK industry with a major role to play in the creation of new or improved processes. That is why EPSRC is strategically investing in this Catalysis Hub. Building on our previous initiatives, it will draw academics and institutions together to further enable cross-disciplinary research, and create a critical mass of activity which will enhance the international standing of the UK catalysis community and help it address the major challenges faced in the Physical Sciences, Energy, Manufacturing and Healthcare themes.”

The UK Catalysis Hub, based at the Research Complex at Harwell (RCaH) in Oxfordshire, will coordinate multi-disciplinary scientists and chemical engineers from over 30 different universities. The Hub will enable scientists to collaborate on projects, share insights, expertise and developments; facilitate world-class research and attract new funding streams. Researchers will work at different universities, and the RCaH will offer training and research. “It’s this combination of ideas from multi-disciplinary teams and across projects that will lead to breakthroughs,” said co-project leader Professor Christopher Hardacre of Queen’s University, Belfast.

Co-project leader, Professor Graham Hutchings, from Cardiff University, said: “Catalysis is a key area of science which can tackle the big problems. We will use catalysts in non-traditional ways and in new innovative areas.”

Four inter-related themes will be addressed with teams interacting between projects to advance catalytic science:

Catalyst design

Led by Professor Richard Catlow, University College London, based at the Research Complex at Harwell Oxford Science Park. Awarded £3.7 million.

Professor Catlow said: “The overall theme of the research is to develop how catalysts work at a molecular level and, from that knowledge, to design new and improved catalysts. The molecular understanding of catalytic processes will lead to an optimisation of catalytic processes that will feed into the other projects.”

Catalysis for energy

Led by Professor Christopher Hardacre, Queen’s University Belfast. Awarded £3 million.

This project will develop technologies for transforming fossil fuel resources such as remote natural gas, coal bed methane and shale gas; develop new sustainable energy sources; improve energy efficiency and storage; and reduce energy costs.

“We need greater sustainability and efficiency in energy use.” said Professor Hardacre. “Our research will focus on converting renewable sources such as solar and biomass into chemical and electrochemical energy for use in power generation via, for example, fuel cells for applications from cars and mobile phones to domestic and commercial combined heat and power systems. By studying the overall processes involved we will be able to see how making changes to them can improve efficiency and develop systems for clean, reliable energy.”

Environmental Catalysis

Led by Professor Graham Hutchings, Cardiff University. Awarded £3.19 million.

Professor Hutchings said: “We will look at how to take ‘waste’ materials such as carbon dioxide and use them to make useful materials, with specific focus on cleaning up atmospheric pollutants, water purification for re-use, protecting the environment and cleaner manufacturing.”

Catalysis for chemical transformations

Led by Professor Matthew Davidson, University of Bath. Awarded £2.9 million.

Professor Davidson said: “We aim to develop new catalysis for sustainable chemical transformations central to the manufacturing processes of bulk chemicals, fine chemicals, polymers and materials. Our goal is to develop new catalytic processes as well as make existing processes more sustainable in order to give the UK a competitive edge. Chemistry-using industries are vital for the UK and world economies, and catalytic science is the cornerstone of a sustainable chemical industry. Catalysis is used to make pharmaceuticals and is fundamental to the manufacture of fuels, solvents, plastics and foodstuffs from a wide range of fossil-based resources and biomass.”

Total investment in the four themes is £12.9 million.

Collaborating universities and institutions for the initial projects are:

Cardiff University, University College London, Queen’s University Belfast, University of Bath, AstraZeneca, Diamond Light Source, GlaxoSmithKline, Johnson Matthey, Imperial College London, ISIS, London South Bank University, STFC Laboratories, Syngenta, Newcastle University, Pfizer, Research Complex at Harwell, Queen Mary University of London, University of Aberdeen, University of Bath,  University of Birmingham, University of Bristol, University of Cambridge, University of Edinburgh, University of East Anglia, University of Glasgow, University of Hull, University of Kent, University of Leeds, University of Leicester, University of Liverpool, University of Manchester, University of Nottingham, University of Oxford, University of Sheffield, University of Southampton, University of Teesside, University of Warwick, University of York, University of St Andrews.

Other collaborating universities and industries are expected to join the Hub team over the course of the project.

Notes to editors:

Case study 1: Catalysis with gold and gold palladium nanoparticles.

Cardiff Catalysis Institute, School of Chemistry, Cardiff University.

Researchers at the Cardiff Catalysis Institute have discovered new catalysts incorporating gold palladium nanoparticles that improve the synthesis of a range of fine and bulk chemicals. These discoveries have been reported in the journal Science. These catalysts are able to multi task and are equally effective for the direct synthesis of hydrogen peroxide, which is a powerful disinfectant, the oxidation of alcohols to aldehydes that are important as fragrances and the oxidation of toluene to benzyl benzoate which is a valuable pharmaceutical for skin care. It turns out that as few as 7-10 metal atoms are required for activity which represents a remarkable example of real nanotechnology and the trick now will be to prepare new materials that just have these small cluster. This will enhance the activity and decrease the costs of the catalysts and the overall products.

Case Study 2: Alkanes

One of the central aims of current catalytic science is the conversion of hydrocarbons, particularly alkanes, into a range of higher added value products. Recent work by teams at University College London and Cardiff has made major progress, both by using advanced computational techniques to model the fundamental molecular processes involved and by developing new catalytic materials which can effect these key transformations.

The Research Complex at Harwel

The Research Complex at Harwell was established in 2010 and has world-class facilities and labs for catalytic research. Facilities for laser research, neutron scattering and synchrotron radiation are powerful tools for catalytic research. The Research Complex  will act as a training and outreach hub for UK research into catalysis.

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is the UK’s main agency for funding research in engineering and the physical sciences. EPSRC invests around £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, to help the nation handle the next generation of technological change. The areas covered range from information technology to structural engineering, and mathematics to materials science. This research forms the basis for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone’s health, lifestyle and culture. EPSRC works alongside other Research Councils with responsibility for other areas of research. The Research Councils work collectively on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

Contact:

EPSRC Press Office Tel: 01793 444 404.

Images of the Research Complex at Harwell are available from the Press Office.

Co-Project Academic Leaders available for interviews:

Professor Graham Hutchings, Cardiff Catalysis Institute, Cardiff University.  Tel: 02920 874059.

Professor Richard Catlow, University College London, Tel: 0207 6790650. 

Professor Matt Davidson, University of Bath, Tel: 01225 386443 (Available Friday 1st February)

Professor Chris Hardacre, Queen's University Belfast, Tel: + 44 28 90 974592

Reference: 08/13