New high performance transition metal catalysts for sustainable reductive processing of chemical feedstocks

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford


We are all familiar with the catalytic convertors in the back of cars, turning polluting gases like nitrogen oxides and carbon monoxide into chemicals that are better for our air. My work will focus on a similar principle, I will be looking at the metal iridium to see if I can use it to introduce carbon dioxide, or specifically the carbon atom in carbon dioxide, onto nitrogen atoms in molecules. Carbon dioxide is currently a readily available waste product that as a society we are keen to remove from our atmosphere due to its enhancement of the greenhouse effect, and so this project would allow us to explore new ways of doing this. Also, molecules with nitrogen atoms in them, especially ones with carbon attached to them in the way I have described, are very common in modern drugs and other chemicals, such as fertilisers, that are of vital importance to society today.

What is special about this work is, thus far, no other academic group has been able to methylate(1) nitrogen atoms using iridium metal and mild reaction conditions(2) yet. Being able to do it this way would provide new routes to a huge variety of chemical compounds, some of which could be useful to industry. A key part of this work will not only be making this reaction with carbon dioxide as good as possible, but also investigating how the reaction happens, its mechanism. This will include both experimental and computational work and by understanding the mechanism it will make it easier to know what reactions should be plausible and how to potentially improve the catalyst in the future.

Iridium is considered to be a part of the 'Precious Metal Group', alongside the likes of gold, silver and platinum. In fact, iridium is much more expensive than any of these metals, and over the last few years has been subject to volatile prices. Luckily, for this type of work very, very small amounts of iridium are needed for the reaction, and at a lab scale this means just a gram of iridium can last many months. Despite this, iridium is a much more finite and expensive resource than a lot of other metals, like iron, cobalt, nickel etc. and it would be highly desirable to eventually try to progress this work to using a cheaper, more readily available metal.

This project falls with the ESPRC Catalysis Research Area.

(1)The word used to describe adding a carbon atom-with three hydrogen atoms on it-onto something else.
(2) Reactions done at/close to room temperature and pressure.

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
2714547 Studentship EP/S023828/1 30/09/2022 29/09/2026 Katherine Clarke