Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Tagged: Catalysis

Three Month Placement at Northwestern University and Pacifichem in Hawaii

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📥  Internships & visits, Seminars & Conferences

This post is contributed by Rob Chapman.

At the end of August 2015, I had the opportunity to go and spend three months working for Professor Karl Scheidt at Northwestern University, just north of Chicago. Whilst in the group I was working on some NHC (N-heterocyclic carbene) organocatalysis, in which Karl is a world leading expert. In particular I was working on NHC homoenolate chemistry combined with an in-situ iron oxidation in a tandem catalytic system (for more details feel free to ask). Seeing how the American system works was a real eye opener and lots of hard work, luckily the group was really welcoming and I made some good friends who were happy to keep me entertained for the time I was there. Showing me the sights and sounds of Chicago, the deep dish pizza is incredible! Luckily my time in Chicago overlapped with thanksgiving and Ben drew the short straw in inviting me to Ohio to spend thanksgiving with his family, the best turkey I’ve ever eaten!

After Chicago my travels were directed towards Hawaii for Pacifichem 2015, but not before meeting up with Bill Cunningham, Steve Bull and Tony James in Miami. From there we embarked on a mini road trip towards Houston, which meant we got to see some of the less travelled parts of the US. The trip also included stop offs at the University of Florida (Gainsville) and Tulane University (New Orleans) where Steve and Tony gave presentations. From Houston we flew to Honolulu for the conference meeting up with Caroline Jones, Emma Lampard and Marc Hutchby. Pacifichem is a once every five year conference which is able to attract some of the biggest names in chemistry from around the world, which I’m sure is helped by the excellent location, and this year was no exception. Being able to attend was a real privilege and I’m very grateful to the CSCT for the opportunity. There were many fantastic talks; with Professor Grubbs on his progress towards E-selective metathesis and Professor Hartwig on some elegant tandem catalysis. There was also a really interesting session on NHC chemistry organised by Professor Karl Scheidt. However, for me the most thought provoking and impressive talk was by Professor Baran who presented some excellent work towards Taxol total synthesis (and other important natural products and drug molecules along the way). His research showed me that organic synthesis can be sustainable and that rather than an area to be overlooked, there is still the opportunity for huge strives forward.

Rob is working towards his PhD on "A protecting group free strategy for the sustainable synthesis of polyketide natural products" with Dr Steven Bull, Dr Pawel Plucinski and Dr Matthew Jones.

Hoʻohuihui lāʻau in Honolulu (Chemistry in Honolulu)

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

This post is contributed by Caroline Jones.

In December 2015 four members of the CSCT travelled to the Hawaiian island of O’ahu to attend the 7th Pacifichem conference. Emma Lampard, Rob Chapman, Bill Cunningham and I joined around 15,000 other chemists in Honolulu for the five day conference which is held once every five years.

Views of Waikiki beach and Honolulu from Diamond Head Crater.

Views of Waikiki beach and Honolulu from Diamond Head Crater.

Parallel sessions were held across seven venues throughout the week which meant that though it could sometimes be difficult to decide between sessions, there was always something interesting to see.

A talk which stood out to the group was from John Hartwig who delivered an engaging presentation on multistep and multicatalytic transformations. Impressive tandem reactions were shown which involved initial catalytic C-H functionalisation steps, followed by a second catalytic transformation – allowing for the rapid synthesis of a wide array of industrially important molecules.

Also of note was Phil Baran who works in collaboration with industrial partners in the synthesis of complex natural product and drug molecules on multigram scales. He described elegant and scalable synthetic methodologies developed for key steps in their group’s synthetic routes. Another group highlight was from John Gordon’s research group at Los Alamos National Laboratory. This presentation detailed the catalytic conversion of biomass-derived molecules towards linear alkanes for use as fuels; a talk which highlighted the power of synthetic chemistry in wider applications.

Presenting our work at Pacifichem.

Presenting our work at Pacifichem.

Presenting my poster at the Green Techniques in Medicinal Chemistry session was a rewarding experience as I was able to meet researchers from around the world with whom my work was well received. After plenty of discussion at this session I also came away from it with new ideas to try in my future research. Bill, Emma and Rob also delivered excellent talks throughout the conference in varied sessions on catalysis for the upgrading of biomass-derived molecules, applications in organoboron synthesis and materials and tactics for complex molecule synthesis respectively.

Making the most of Pacifichem’s location we also managed to explore the area for a few days on either side of the conference. Highlights included a sweaty climb up the Diamond Head crater, a snorkelling trip to hunt for the Humuhumunukunukapua’a (the Hawaiian state fish) and a group skydive – a truly memorable experience! We are grateful for the funding from the CSCT and the RSC Organic Division Travel Grant Scheme which allowed us to attend this conference.

Our Hawaiian skydive!

Our Hawaiian skydive!

Caroline is working towards her PhD on "Sustainable catalytic methodology for functional group manipulation" with Professor Jonathan Williams, Dr Pawel Plucinski and Dr Steven Bull.

Trip to Russia: 7th European Congress on Catalysis

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

This post is contributed by Tamsin Bell who has now moved to continue her PhD at the University of Cambridge.

At the end of August 2015, I attended the 7th European congress on catalysis, Europacat in Kazan, Russia. The conference started with a very formal opening ceremony and two plenary lectures and concluded with a welcome reception where I was able to catch up with a collaborator from the University of Glasgow.

The session I spoke in was “Energy-related catalysis” but I also attended many interesting talks in the other four sections. The research I presented makes use of cobalt as a sustainable alternative to more expensive metals to catalyse ammonia decomposition for in situ production of hydrogen for use in a fuel cell. On the final day of the conference I gave my presentation in a 600 seater ball room. It was an amazing (and slightly terrifying) experience talking about my research to such a large and knowledgeable audience.

Tour of Kazan and Tami in St Petersburg

Tour of Kazan and Tami in St Petersburg

One evening there was an excursion to visit the historical, 1000 year old city of Kazan, which notably included a visit to the impressive Kazan Kremlin. The word Kremlin means "fortress" and there are only four remaining in Russia. At the end of the week, there was a conference banquet with performances from local Russian dancers and we were able to try some Russian vodka, after which many of the academics and delegates were also showing off their dancing skills.

I had a fantastic week in Russia, I met lots of interesting people, I learnt how to say thank you in Russian, Спасибо, which is pronounced "spa-see-ba", I bought a Russian fur hat and I got lots of ideas for my research. I was even lucky enough to visit the beautiful cities of Moscow and St Petersburg on the way back home.

Sightseeing in Moscow

Sightseeing in Moscow

I am very grateful to the conference organisers for accepting me to present my work and for the travel funding I received from the Royal Society of Chemistry, Santander and the Armours & Brasiers.


Green Catalysis with the National University of Singapore

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📥  Internships & visits

First year CSCT student Michael Joyes visited the Lab of Green Catalysis group at the National University of Singapore (NUS) as part of the Global Collaboration Scheme. The aim was to produce metal-Graphene catalysts for use in the conversion of carbon dioxide to hydrocarbons as part of the broader topic of carbon dioxide utilisation. Here is a little bit about his time there:

‘After thirteen long hours, countless movies and several meals on the plane I arrived at my accommodation in Singapore, jet-lagged but excited to start work. It was a short walk the next day to the National University of Singapore, where I proceeded to get lost in the huge American style NUS campus. I finally found my way to the correct building and met the Lab of Green Catalysis group led by Professor Yan Ning.

I embarked on this collaboration project after my supervisor Dr Davide Mattia secured funding from the Global Collaboration Scheme. The aim was to work with the Yan Ning group at the NUS to produce metal-Graphene catalysts for use in the conversion of carbon dioxide to hydrocarbons as part of the broader topic of carbon dioxide utilisation. The Yan Ning group had developed a novel method that involved a ‘popping’ step where after the metal is added to the Graphene it is heated and pops once it reaches a certain temperature! (See video)


Quartz tube containing metal graphene catalyst in a furnace

I got to grips with the methods associated with making this catalyst quickly and begun making as much as possible to take back to Bath for testing.

I had a weekend to explore Singapore and my first stop was Chinatown, where I got thoroughly lost in the crowds, I then made my way to explore the many malls and food courts the city has to offer, trying many different styles of food. Singapore is a very multicultural country so there is a varied range of cuisine such as Japanese, Chinese, Korean and Thai to name a few!



My next stop was the Singapore Botanic Gardens, first envisaged in 1822 by the founder of the city of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles. The gardens feature several different areas such as the National Orchid Garden, the Healing Garden and the Rain Forest Garden. My personal favourite was the evolution garden which detailed the evolution of flora over time as you walked through it.


Singapore Botanic Gardens

The next day I visited Marina Bay Sands Skypark, a viewing platform on top of three high-rise hotels. Up there I enjoyed a spectacular view of Singapore, dotted with skyscrapers, landmarks and sea.


Marina Bay Sands Skypark

I had a great time in Singapore and the two weeks flew by. I feel the experience helped me to learn the methods needed to further my project and produced a good amount of catalyst to hopefully get some good results from. It was also rewarding to learn more about the process of collaboration and great to meet new people from different parts of the world!

Michael is in cohort '14 of the CSCT and is currently working on his first MRes project with Dr Davide Mattia (Chemical Engineering) and Dr Matthew Jones (Chemistry).


Conference Report: 2014 IChemE Applied Catalysis and Reaction Engineering

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📥  Seminars & Conferences

On 17th – 18th Sept 2014, CSCT students Tamsin Bell and Emma Sackville attended the 2014 IChemE Applied Catalysis and Reaction Engineering Conference in Cambridge. This report was written by Emma.

A few weeks ago, Tami and I attended the Applied Catalysis and Reaction Engineering conference in Cambridge. This was a conference primarily for early career researchers, although there were a number of academics and industry members present, several of whom gave plenary lectures.

These lectures included a talk on the importance of reactor design by the eminent Prof. Freek Kapteijn; an insight into research in a multinational company by Dr. Adeana Bishop, who attended as part of Exxon Mobil; and an interesting talk from Prof. David Cole-Hamilton who spoke on the development of waste bio-oils for conversion to chemicals.

I had been given the opportunity to give an oral presentation, my first at a conference, and needless to say the experience was quite daunting! However after the initial nerves I actually quite enjoyed it and the talk was received well. My talk was entitled: "The Effect of Promoters on Iron Carbon Nanotubes Catalysts for the Conversion of Carbon Dioxide to Hydrocarbons". All of the other speakers were early career researchers, but the level of the presentations was extremely high. There was a wide range of topics on offer, with a focus on catalysis and reactors, which made for a varied and interesting program.

Tami was presenting her poster about her research in nanostructured alumina to support metal nanoparticles at the poster session, which took place primarily after the first day. Again, there were a wide range of topics covered and both of us had some interesting discussions with other attendees about our work.

Tamin presenting her poster

Tamsin presenting her poster

We were staying in the beautiful Jesus College, and had a great conference dinner in the great hall which was also striking – as you’d expect from a Cambridge college! After the conference ended on Thursday we spent the afternoon wandering round Cambridge itself. We even had a punting tour along the river, seeing the backs of several of Cambridge’s most famous colleges, and snuck into the beautiful St. John’s college before having a drink on a roof top bar overlooking the city and then heading home. Overall a really interesting conference in a beautiful city – although still not a pretty as Bath!


Research update: Biodiesel production in fixed bed catalytic reactors

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📥  Research updates

Biodiesel has the potential to be an environmentally sustainable alternative fuel source for diesel engines.  It is made by the transesterification of triglycerides, which are the main components in fats and oils.  Transesterification is a chemical reaction which, in the case of biodiesel, leads to the long fatty acid chain being removed from the glycerol backbone of a triglyceride (fat) molecule and being replaced by an alkyl group from a short chain alcohol, such as methanol, as shown in Figure 1.  This has historically been done with the aid of a dissolved or liquid catalyst, either an acid or a base.  Unfortunately, this leads to increased wastewater production, as the catalyst must be washed out of the fuel before being neutralised.  Additionally, the faster basic catalysts are extremely sensitive to both water and free fatty acids (FFA), resulting in the formation of soap from the latter.  If these catalysts can be replaced with a solid, water and FFA tolerant catalyst, the production of biodiesel can be made much cleaner and more economical.

Figure 1. Reaction scheme for biodiesel production

Figure 1. Reaction scheme for biodiesel production

My project is focused on developing a solid catalyst anchored on a support structure, which will allow the catalyst to be fixed inside a reactor while the oil and methanol are pumped through it. The main aims for the catalyst are that it:

  • Does not dissolve (leach) into the reaction mixture
  • Stays active for a prolonged period of time
  • Is tolerant of FFA and water

Previous work at the University had focused on a zinc-amino acid complex, but this was ultimately shown to leach. Thus, focus has shifted to catalysts that can be physically incorporated into a coating layer, such as a sol-gel. Currently, strontium oxide is being examined as a candidate, as it is a very effective catalyst when used as a powder.

About the author

Ben Firth is in the first year of his PhD, studying "Biodiesel production in fixed bed catalytic reactors". He is supervised by Prof Stan Kolaczkowski in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

Further reading

KNOTHE, G., VAN GERPEN, J. & KRAHL, J. 2005. The biodiesel handbook, Urbana, Ill., AOCS Press.