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Biomass conversion into platform chemicals for a future biorefinery

School of Life Sciences

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Dr V Degirmenci , Dr A Jones No more applications being accepted Competition Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

Biomass can be either purposefully grown through energy crops (e.g. miscanthus, switchgrass) or produced in large amounts as unwanted organic matter once edible components are collected. It has the potential to close the carbon balance through photosynthesis and help create a net-zero emission economy if used as a feedstock for the production of commercially valuable products and energy. This represents a major scientific challenge since completely new ways of processing biomass must be invented. Lignocellulose makes up to 95 % of plant biomass, and its major monomer unit is glucose. The selective isomerization of glucose into fructose is the key step to produce highly reactive molecules such as 5-hydroxymethylfurfural (HMF) which can be further converted into fuels or chemicals used in drugs, bioplastics, flavourings and fragrances; that is essential for a future low carbon economy. This project will consider the understanding of the reaction mechanisms through precise product identification, and in the light of this knowledge new catalysts will be designed, with a novel angle, using biochemical engineering to focus on designing new practices for industrial biotechnology applications.
Heterogeneous or recoverable catalysts and continuous processes rather than batch systems are highly demanded for an industrial application. Lewis acid Sn-Beta zeolite is the most promising among reported catalysts. However, the accurate picture of the reaction mechanism over this catalyst is not clear due to the difficulties in the identification of all the reaction products. This hampers our ability to design new catalysts with desired functionalities and prevents industrial process design too. Furthermore, the performances of the catalytic systems for biomass conversion were usually studied in batch systems whereas a continuous operation is preferred for a large-scale industrial application. Long term catalyst activity and catalyst deactivation were not investigated thoroughly.

The study to conduct will focus on understanding of this catalytic system. The emphasis will be on the product analysis and optimisation of reaction parameters for increasing selectivity towards desired products.
The main objectives of the proposed research program are:
- To develop methods for product analysis for the isomerization of glucose into HMF.
- To develop reliable reaction kinetics.
- To understand the catalyst deactivation mechanisms.

This will be a novel study that will contribute significantly to this area of research. The reaction kinetics will be determined, and the catalyst deactivation will be researched. The fundamental knowledge obtained will assist the development of large-scale continuous flow systems for the production of platform molecules from glucose which eventually assists the cost-effective conversion of lignocellulosic biomass into valuable chemicals and liquid fuels.
This is an interdisciplinary experimental project that is laboratory-based. Students from a wide diversity of academic backgrounds are encouraged to apply; experimental science (for example, biology, chemistry, chemical/biochemical engineering, biotechnology). Through this project, the students will be trained in materials synthesis and characterisation as well as analytical instrumentation (for example, mass spectroscopy, HPLC, electron microscopy, XRD, etc). Candidate will develop the experience of developing and optimising new preparative methods for solids, but this project will also give them new training in catalysis and industrial biotechnology via the partnership between engineering and life sciences so will provide valuable new experience.

BBSRC Strategic Research Priority: Renewable resources and clean growth: Bioenergy
Techniques that will be undertaken during the project:
- Mass spectrometry for the detection, quantification and characterisation of reaction intermediates, and products.
- High Performance Liquid Chromatography, HPLC, for the fast detection and analysis of reactants and desired products.
- X-ray diffraction spectroscopy (XRD), scanning electron microscopy (SEM), and nitrogen physisorption (BET) for the structural characterisation of catalysts.
- Hydrothermal laboratory synthesis methods for the preparation of catalysts.
- Batch and flow chemical reactor for performing catalytic activity tests.

Funding Notes

Studentship includes: fees, a tax-free stipend of at least £15,009 p.a (to rise in line with UKRI recommendation); a travel allowance in year 1; a travel / conference budget; a generous consumables budget and use of a MacBook Pro for the duration of the programme. In order to apply you must ensure that you are eligible.
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