Metal Atoms on Surfaces & Interfaces (MASI) for Sustainable Future

Lead Research Organisation: University of Nottingham
Department Name: Sch of Chemistry


What is MASI?

We believe that there is a strong link between the looming environmental crisis and the way we use chemical elements. In MASI, a multidisciplinary team of scientists from four UK universities (Nottingham, Cardiff, Cambridge, Birmingham), with 12 industrial and academic partners, is set to revolutionise the ways we use metals in a broad range of technologies, and to break our dependence on critically endangered elements. Simultaneously, MASI will make advances in: the reduction of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and its valorisation into useful chemicals; the production of 'green' ammonia (NH3) as an alternative zero-emission fuel and a new vector for hydrogen storage; and the provision of more sustainable fuel cells and electrolyser technologies.
At the core of MASI is the fundamental science of metal nanoclusters (MNC), which goes beyond the traditional realm of nanoparticles towards the nanometre and sub-nanometre domain including single metal atoms (SMA). The overall goal of the MASI project is two-fold: (i) to provide a solution for a sustainable use of scarce metals of technological importance (e.g. Pt, Au, Pd), by maximising utilisation of every atom; and (ii) to unlock new properties that emerge in metals only at the atomic scale, allowing for the substitution of critical metals with abundant ones (e.g. Pt with Ni), and provide a platform for the next generation of materials for energy, catalysis and electronics applications.

How does it work?

We have recently developed the theoretical framework and instrumentation necessary to break bulk metals directly to metal atoms or nanoclusters, with their size, shape and composition precisely controlled. The atomic-scale control of nanocluster fabrication will open the door for programming their chemistry. For example, the electronic, catalytic or electrochemical properties of abundant metals, such as Ni and Co, may imitate endangered metals (Pt or Ru) at the nm and sub-nm scale, or by carefully controlled dispersion of the endangered elements with abundant ones in an alloy nanocluster.

Our method allows direct deposition of metal atoms or nanoclusters onto solids (e.g. glass, polymer film, paper etc.), powders (e.g. silica, alumina, carbon etc.) and non-volatile liquids (e.g. oils, ionic liquids) in vacuum with no chemicals, solvents or surfactants and an accurately controlled metal loading. The directness of the MASI approach avoids generating chemical waste and enables a high 'atom economy', surpassing any wet chemistry methods. Moreover, surfaces of our metal nanoclusters are clean and highly active; additionally, being stabilised by interactions with the support material, they can be readily applied wherever electronic, optical or catalytic properties of metals are required.

What is unique about these materials and our technology?

MASI will offer greener, more sustainable methods of fabrication of metal nanoclusters, without solvents or chemicals, with the maximised active surface area ensuring efficient use of each metal atom.

'Naked', highly active metal surfaces are ready for reactions with molecules, activated by heat, light or electric potential, while tuneable interactions with support materials provide durability and reusability of metals in reactions. In particular, MASI materials will be suitable for the activation of hard-to-crack molecules (e.g. N2, H2 and CO2) in reactions that constitute the backbone of the chemical industry, such as the Haber-Bosch process. Similarly, highly dispersed metals and their intimate contact with the support material, will lead to high capacity for energy storage/conversion required in energy materials and fuel cells technologies. Importantly, MASI nanocluster fabrication technology is fully scalable to kilograms and tons of material, making it ideal for uptake in industrial schemes, potentially leading to a green industrial revolution.

Planned Impact

People. MASI will deliver high quality research training and career development for young scientists, not only for the PDRAs directly employed by the grant but also for PhD students associated with the project (seven PhD studentships will be internally funded by the four institutions). The researchers will be exposed to an incredibly interdisciplinary environment via the combination of experimental chemistry, materials engineering, analytical sciences and theoretical modelling within the single project, making use of the bespoke training programmes in science and technology of nanomaterials offered by nmRC at Nottingham ( Training in the industrial context will be provided by our partner organisations, such as Siemens' 'green' ammonia plant at Harwell Campus.

Academia. As properties of metals change abruptly in sub-nm range, the physics and chemistry of SMA/MNC have many scientific surprises. Their hybrids with low-dimensional materials (e.g. graphene, carbon nitride, nanotubes) are expected to exhibit unique functional properties inaccessible in any traditional materials, creating a new wave of research across a range of disciplines stimulated by MASI. Our results will be published in high-calibre international peer-reviewed journals, and reported at key materials science, analytical science, catalysis, and chemical engineering conferences. This will disseminate new knowledge of the science of nanoclusters to the wide multidisciplinary audience on methods of their preparation and characterisation, new types of chemical reactions facilitated by these materials and functional devices enabled by MASI. Moreover, we expect the nanocluster fabrication system at Nottingham to become a new national facility open to all HEIs in the UK and beyond.

Industry. We will work closely with our industry partners (see letters of support) to identify opportunities to apply SMA/MNC that will emerge from this project in the development of the next generation of materials for energy, catalysis and electronic applications. The opportunity to reduce the amount of precious metals used in a range of technological processes will reduce both the financial and environmental costs to the UK. MASI innovations will be fed directly into a range of chemistry-using industries in the UK (£15.2bn Value Added p.a. and >150k UK jobs) and overseas, including heterogenous catalysis manufacture, energy conversion and storage materials, conversion of petrochemicals and ammonia synthesis, harnessing the untapped potential of metal nanoclusters for the first time. We have strong support from chemical industry partners, including Johnson Matthey and Siemens, who are primarily interested in new heterogenous catalyst systems emerging from MASI. In addition, the TSMC Ltd., the world's leading semiconductor foundry company, and Versarion Plc. are keen to exploit MASI methodology for 2D materials production. Working in partnership with the leading magnetron sputtering systems manufacturer AJA International Ltd. we will realise our ambitious goal to upscale metal nanocluster fabrication from the preparative laboratory scale to the industrial pilot scale within the lifetime of MASI.

Society. The limited resource and increasing scarcity of many metals of technological importance, such as Pt, Pd, Au, are some of the greatest and immediate threats to future progress of our society that will be addressed by MASI. The policy institutes of the four universities will facilitate social engagement and awareness-raising campaigns for MASI. Led by the University of Nottingham's recently established Global Policy Institute, we will launch a campaign on achieving a sustainable zero-emission society. We will use the output from MASI as the core for the campaign to explain how fundamentally changing the environmental and sustainability credentials of science and technology has a cascading impact on the daily lives of citizens and businesses.


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Description EPSRC NetZero Webinar 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach National
Primary Audience Postgraduate students
Results and Impact MASI hosted a webinar as part of the EPSRC NetZero event
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2022