Designer Carbon Nanotube Columns for Chemo- and Bio-Catalytic Synthesis in Flow

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford


Hydrogenation reactions involve addition of hydrogen gas across a double bond, and account for 10-20% of all industrial chemical steps. However, industrial hydrogenation processes often rely upon precious, heavy metals which may contaminate the final reaction product. Selectivity is also a significant challenge with metal catalysts: hydrogenation may occur in unwanted positions on a complex molecule, certain substituents on the molecule such as halogens may be lost during hydrogenation, and it is very difficult to produce single enantiomer forms of chiral (mirror image) molecules during hydrogenation with metal catalysts. In contrast, enzymes isolated from natural organisms are very good at achieving these same chemical products with exquisite selectivity, and are fully biodegradable and renewable because they are isolated from cells of micro-organisms which are easy to cultivate.
Unfortunately, current methods for applying enzymes (biocatalysts) to make hydrogenated chemical products generate a lot of chemical waste which makes the processes less attractive and more costly. This is because the enzymes need expensive cofactors which must be re- charged continually during a reaction. The cofactor re-charging processes are usually powered by sugar (glucose), and most of the glucose molecule goes to waste, and may be burnt at the end of the reaction. To clean up biocatalysis, the Vincent group have developed biocatalytic strategies for driving cofactor re-charging using hydrogen gas, or avoiding the need for cofactors completely. Key themes of this research are the use of hydrogenase enzymes to oxidise dihydrogen selectively, and the use of carbon support materials for hydrogenase immobilisation. This project lies at the interface between Biocatalysis and Materials Science, and focusses on fundamental design principles for carbon materials which are suited to supporting biocatalysts for the generation of amine products.
Amines are chemical compounds defined by the presence of an NH2 functional group and are of immense industrial importance in the production of pharmaceuticals, dyes, and plastics, necessitating their production on a massive scale. The project presented herein will probe various designer carbon materials for their ability to support hydrogenases and participate in the selective generation of amine chemical products. A focus will be placed on carbon nanotubes, which are of increasing interest to the scientific community because of their tuneable electronic and chemical properties and will provide a platform for investigating the relationship between fundamental material properties and catalytic efficiency. Through optimisation and scale-up of this biocatalytic hydrogenation system, a greener, selective, and commercially feasible method for generating important amine compounds could be developed, with wide applications in research, industry, and pollutant remediation.
This project falls within the EPSRC Physical Sciences - Catalysis Research Area.

Planned Impact

The primary impact of the OxICFM CDT will be the highly-trained world-class scientists that it delivers. This impact will encompass both the short term (during their doctoral studies), the medium term (subsequent employment) and ultimately the longer timescale defined by their future careers and consequent impact on science, engineering and policy in the UK.

The impact of OxICFM students during their doctoral studies will be measured by the culture change in graduate training that the Centre brings about - in working at the interface between inorganic synthesis and manufacturing, and fostering cross-sector industry/academia working practices. By embedding not only from larger companies, but also SMEs, we have developed a training regime that has broader relevance across the sector, and the potential for building bridges by fostering new collaborations spanning enormous diversity in scientific focus and scale. Moreover, at a broader level, OxICFM offers to play a unique role as a major focus (and advocate) for manufacturing engagement with academic inorganic synthetic science in the UK.

From a scientific perspective, OxICFM will be uniquely able to offer a broad training programme incorporating innovative and challenging collaborative projects spanning all aspects of fundamental and applied inorganic synthesis, both molecular and materials based (40+ faculty). These will address key challenges in areas such as energy provision/storage, catalysis, and resource provision/renewal necessary to enhance the capability and durability of UK plc in the medium term. To give some idea of perspective, the output from previous CDTs in Oxford's MPLS Division include two start-up companies and in excess of 30 patents.

It is not only in the industrial and scientific realms that students will have impact during their timeframe of their doctorate. Part of the training programme will be in public engagement: team-based challenges in resource development/training and outreach exercises/implementation will form part of the annual summer school. These in turn will constitute a key part of the impact derived from the CDT by its engagement with the public - both face-to-face and through electronic/web-based media. As the centre matures, our aspiration is that our students - from diverse backgrounds - will act as ambassadors for the programme and promote even higher levels of inclusion from all parts of society.

For our partners, and businesses both large and small in the manufacturing sector, it will be our students who are considered the ultimate output of the OxICFM CDT. Our programme has been shaped by the need of such companies (frequently expressed in preliminary discussions) to recruit doctoral graduates who can apply themselves to a broad spectrum of multi-disciplinary challenges in manufacturing-related synthesis. OxICFM's cohort-based training programme integrates significant industry-led training components and has been designed to deliver a much broader skill set than standard PhD schemes. The current lack of CDT training at the interface of inorganic chemistry and manufacturing (and the relevance of inorganic molecules/materials to numerous industrial sectors) heightens the need for - and the potential impact of - the OxICFM CDT. Our students will represent a tangible and valuable asset to meet the long-term skills demand for scientists to develop new materials and nanotechnology identified in the UK Government's 2013 Foresight report.

In the longer term, the broad and relevant training delivered by OxICFM, and the uniquely wide perspective of the manufacturing sector it will deliver, will allow our graduates to obtain (and thrive in) positions of significant responsibility in industry and in research facilities/institutes. Ultimately we believe that many will go on to be future research leaders, driving innovation and changing research culture, and thereby making a lasting contribution to the UK economy.


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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/S023828/1 31/03/2019 29/09/2027
2404164 Studentship EP/S023828/1 30/09/2020 31/12/2024 Maya Landis