It has been proposed that organic compounds are formed in protostellar nebulae through heterogeneous catalytic reactions, analogous to Fischer-Tropsch synthesis. These reactions occur on mineral grain surfaces that are coated in carbonaceous deposits. The production of these organic compounds could be the necessary first step towards organic complexity and hence the evolution of life. This project will investigate the feasibility of such catalytic reactions by applying catalytic engineering methods to model systems of protostellar environments. This will provide reaction mechanism data with which to test the evolutionary hypothesis.
While carbon deposits ("coke") are more typically associated with catalyst deactivation, recent work from our laboratory and others have shown that they can also play an important beneficial role in a wide range of heterogeneously catalysed transformations. CO or CO2 hydrogenation (Fischer-Tropsch type catalysis) or nitrogen hydrogenation (analogous to the Haber-Bosch process) are two such processes. Metal-containing mineral grains e.g. iron-silicates, covered by carbonaceous deposits are hypothesised to catalyse these reactions in protstellar nebulae – extraterrestrial regions rich in organic matter and subject to ’high’ temperatures (500-1000 K).
In order to develop structure-performance relationships model carbonaceous compounds, e.g. graphene oxide will also be investigated; while reaction studies will be extended to consider other processes where carbon laydown plays a beneficial role such as the non-oxidative and oxidative dehydrogenation of alkanes.
These results will shed light on the origin of complex organic species observed in extraterrestrial environments, but will also directly assist in the development of novel catalysts and processes for major industrial processes in the chemicals and fuels sectors. The department is currently developing a large-scale (1 l) Fischer-Tropsch reactor and this work will align closely with the development of that facility.
Students will fully engage in the Faculty Doctoral Development Programme. In addition, subject-specific training in industrial-standard analytic techniques will be provided.
Graduates in his field are highly employable. Catalysis underpins the UK and global manufacturing sectors with over 90% of products employing a catalyst at some stage in their manufacture. Opportunities therefore exist to progress into companies at all levels, from large multi-nationals to SMEs; or into academia.
The student will be an integrated part of large research group benefitting from many shared resources.
This project is suitable for a graduate in chemical engineering, chemistry, materials science or a closely related subject holding a 2.1 (or equivalent) degree. Applicants should meet the universities requirements for English language proficiency.