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Catalytic materials for biomass valorisation - from single sites to nanoparticles


   Department of Chemical Engineering & Analytical Science

   Applications accepted all year round  Self-Funded PhD Students Only

About the Project

A catalyst is a substance that increases the rate of a chemical reaction without being consumed, offering greater energy efficiency relative to non-catalytic pathways. As a result, the chemical industry is highly reliant on catalysis, with catalytic processes underpinning 90% of all global chemical production, with the UK a key contributor to the development of catalytic materials and processes. In heterogeneous catalysis, the catalyst presents as a different phase to the reaction, most commonly a solid catalyst used in either a gas or liquid phase reaction, and often consist of supported platinum group metal particles with dimension in the nanometre regime (1 nm = 1 millionth of a millimetre). However, even at sizes as small as 2 nm (~ 150 atoms) up to 40% of the atoms are within the bulk of the particle and not accessible for catalysis, which occurs only at the nanoparticle surface. To address this and maximise accessibility single-atom sites catalysis, which represent the ultimate in miniaturisation and result in 100 % accessibility, has gained significant interest over the last 5 years, especially in gas-phase reactions.

Biomass valorisation proves a suitable pathway to both chemicals and fuels through a biorefinery concept, equivalent to petrochemical refining but utilising cellulose, hemicellulose and lignin as feedstocks. Catalytic processing of such feedstocks requires a different strategy to petrochemical ones, often necessitating low temperature aqueous liquid phase processes for optimal selectivity towards desirable products. The development of highly efficient catalytic materials for such processes is highly desirable, with single-atom catalytic materials a potential solution. This project aims to develop single-atom sites for the oxidation of biomass derivates, to develop a more efficient and sustainable process for polymeric monomer production through the synthesis of carbonyl and carboxylic acid species. Furthermore, recent observations have shown that in some case two atoms are better than one, and has provided the first steppingstones to link single sites and nanoparticles. At the same time, it also raise the question over the optimal configuration. To further investigate this diatom and triatome site will also be explored. 

The student will be based within the University of Manchester at Harwell Research Institute within the group of Dr Chris Parlett, located at Diamond Light Source and embedded within the UK Catalysis Hub. Both national facilities are located at the Harwell Research Complex in Oxfordshire, which is the UK’s leading science innovation and technology campus, situated 20 minutes from Oxford and one hour from London, and will provide access to world-leading facilities. The unique research environment, along with in-depth training, will enable you to develop expertise spanning heterogeneous catalysis, nanomaterials, and operando/in-situ spectroscopy.

Please contact the Admissions team at with any queries you may have regarding the application process.

Equality, diversity and inclusion is fundamental to the success of The University of Manchester, and is at the heart of all of our activities. We know that diversity strengthens our research community, leading to enhanced research creativity, productivity and quality, and societal and economic impact. We actively encourage applicants from diverse career paths and backgrounds and from all sections of the community, regardless of age, disability, ethnicity, gender, gender expression, sexual orientation and transgender status.

We also support applications from those returning from a career break or other roles. We consider offering flexible study arrangements (including part-time: 50%, 60% or 80%, depending on the project/funder).

All appointments are made on merit.


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