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PHOtolysis Reaction Mechanisms by Emerging and New Technologies – PhoRMENT

   Department of Chemistry

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  Dr A R Rickard, Dr T J Dillon, Prof Victor Chechik  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Photochemistry controls a vast array of the natural and man-made chemical processes: photosynthesis, plasma technology, solar energy, combustion and atmospheric chemistry. An important example is atmospheric photo-oxidation, which drives the atmospheric radical propagation cycles that breakdown primary pollutant emissions, but also controls the formation of secondary pollutants such as ozone and oxygenated volatile organic compounds (oVOC), which can have significant impacts on climate, air quality and human health.

Despite the clear importance of the subject, experimental limitations have inhibited the study of even the simplest processes by which small gas-phase molecules interact with chemically active ultra violet (UV) light. In this project you will exploit new and emerging technologies such as low cost UV LEDs, chemosensors (developed in York [1]) for sensitive and selective free-radical detection, online mass spectrometry, and modern theoretical computational methods to study atmospherically important photolysis reactions.

Among the largest classes of chemicals emitted or produced in the atmosphere are carbonyls – organic molecules containing one or more carbonyl functionality. Carbonyls are used in in a vast array of industrial applications, including directly as solvents, pesticides and biofuels, and as reagents for production of pharmaceuticals and aromachemicals. Carbonyls are also ubiquitous in both indoor and outdoor air. Direct emissions are supplemented by in-situ production as virtually all organic compounds break-down through atmospheric oxidation processes via multiple generations of carbonyl intermediates (Figure 1), where they can significantly impact on air quality and health. As an example, carbonyl photolysis has been shown to drive large wintertime ozone formation in the oil and gas fracking fields of the Unitah Basin in northeastern Utah [2].

The photochemistry of carbonyls is therefore both chemically interesting and important. Unusually amongst atmospheric organics, they are broken down by abundant UV-A radiation. Therefore this project is particularly timely, as the photochemical environment is rapidly changing indoors. LED lighting is replacing fluorescent and incandescent technology, whilst UV and plasma based air filtration systems are increasingly used in an effort to enhance indoor air quality and to suppress virus spread.


To determine absorption cross-sections and photolysis quantum yields for a variety of important gas-phase carbonyl species; to assess photolysis rates and product branching ratios, over a range of indoor and outdoor conditions, and hence air quality impacts; to identify how chemical structure and additional functionalities in carbonyls impact upon photolysis rates [3].

Experimental Approach

Characterisation and development of a newly commissioned fast-flow reactor, coupled to the use of chemosensor radical traps [1] and on-line mass spectrometry for quantum yield determinations

UV-vis spectroscopy techniques for absorption cross-section measurements

GAUSSIAN quantum chemical toolkit for theoretical thermodynamic calculations and chemical structure determination

Development of models incorporating the Master Chemical Mechanism (MCM, http://mcm.york.ac.uk) for experimental design and environmental impact assessment


The student will work under the supervision of Dr Andrew Rickard (chemical mechanism development, laboratory experiments), Dr Terry Dillon (laboratory experiments, GAUSSIAN theoretical calculations), and Prof Victor Chechik (chemosensor applications). The student will be based in the Wolfson Atmospheric Chemistry Laboratories (WACL), part of the Department of Chemistry at the University of York (www.york.ac.uk/chemistry/research/wacl/). WACL is a world leading facility bringing together experts in atmospheric measurements, lab-studies and Earth system modelling to form the UK’s largest integrated atmospheric science research team.

The student should have a strong background in the physical sciences (i.e. a good degree in chemistry, physics, engineering or similar science), a keen interest in environmental issues, and an aptitude and enthusiasm for experimental work.

We appreciate that this PhD project encompasses several different science and technology areas, and we don’t expect applicants to have experience in many of these fields. The project is well supported with experienced scientists and training in these new techniques and disciplines is all part of the PhD.

All Chemistry research students have access to our innovative Doctoral Training in Chemistry (iDTC): cohort-based training to support the development of scientific, transferable and employability skills: https://www.york.ac.uk/chemistry/postgraduate/training/idtc/ 

The Department of Chemistry holds an Athena SWAN Gold Award and is committed to supporting equality and diversity for all staff and students. The Department strives to provide a working environment which allows all staff and students to contribute fully, to flourish, and to excel: https://www.york.ac.uk/chemistry/ed/. 

For more information about the project, click on the supervisor's name above to email the supervisor. For more information about the application process or funding, please click on email institution

This PhD will formally start on 1 October 2023. Induction activities may start a few days earlier.

To apply for this project, submit an online PhD in Chemistry application: https://panorama-dtp.ac.uk/how-to-apply/

You should hold or expect to achieve the equivalent of at least a UK upper second class degree in Chemistry or a related subject.  Please check the entry requirements for your country: https://www.york.ac.uk/study/international/your-country/

Eligibility and How to Apply

See our How to Apply page.

The NERC Panorama DTP are hosting ‘Demystifying the PhD application process’ webinars on the 9th and 12th December – sign up now!

The minimum English language entry requirement for postgraduate research study is an IELTS of 6.0 overall with at least 5.5 in each component (reading, writing, listening and speaking) or equivalent. The test must be dated within two years of the start date of the course in order to be valid. Some schools and faculties have a higher requirement.

Equal Opportunities:

Within the NERC Panorama DTP, we are dedicated to diversifying our community. As part of our ongoing work to improve Equality, Diversity and Inclusion within our PhD funding programme, we particularly encourage applications from the following identified underrepresented groups: UK Black, Asian and minority ethnic communities, those from a disadvantaged socio-economic background, and disabled people. To support candidates from these groups, we are ringfencing interviews, providing 1-2-1 support from our EDI Officer (contact Dr. Katya Moncrieff) and hosting a bespoke webinar to demystify the application process. Candidates will always be selected based on merit and ability within an inclusive and fair recruitment process.

Funding Notes

This project is available as part of the NERC Panorama DTP, and is a fully funded studentship covering the full cost of University fees plus Maintenance of £17,668 (2022/23 rate) per year for 3.5 years, and a generous research training and support grant (RTSG). Applications are open to both home and international applicants. Please note the number of fully funded awards open for international applicants is limited by UKRI to 30% (7 studentships).


[1] Williams, P.J., Boustead, G.A., Heard, D.E., Seakins, P.W., Rickard, A.R. and Chechik, V., New Approach to the Detection of Short-Lived Radical Intermediates. Journal of the American Chemical Society, 144(35), 15969-15976, https://doi.org/10.1021/jacs.2c03618, 2022
[2] Edwards, P.M., Brown, S.S., Roberts, J.M., Ahmadov, R., Banta, R.M., DeGouw, J.A., Dubé, W.P., Field, R.A., Flynn, J.H., Gilman, J.B. and Graus, M., High winter ozone pollution from carbonyl photolysis in an oil and gas basin. Nature, 514(7522), 351-354, doi:10.1038/nature13767, 2014
[3] Vereecken, L., Aumont, B., Barnes, I., Bozzelli, J. W., Goldman, M. J., Green, M. H., Madronich, S., Mcgillen, M. R., Mellouki, A., Orlando, J. J., Picquet-Varrault, B., Rickard, A. R., Stockwell, W. R., Wallington, T. J., and Carter, W. P. L.: Perspective on mechanism development and structure-activity relationships for gas-phase atmospheric chemistry, Int. J. Chem. Kinet., 50, 435–469, https://doi.org/10.1002/kin.21172, 2018

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