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The surface chemistry of complex organic molecules in space

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  • Full or part time
    Prof W Brown
  • Application Deadline
    No more applications being accepted
  • Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)
    Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

Project Description

This position is available immediately and it is expected that the student will start in January 2019.

This project will use a combination of experimental and theoretical surface science studies to investigate the adsorption, processing (thermally and by electrons and photons) and formation of complex organic molecules (COMs) in conditions relevant to interstellar space and to cometary and planetary ices. This research is particularly timely because of the upcoming launch of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which will allow the detection of molecules in space with much higher sensitivity than previously possible. This student will hence have the chance to be involved in laboratory and theoretical work directly relevant to observational astronomy. COMs are currently a hot topic in Astrochemistry, with new species being found all of the time in a range of different environments. Their importance stems from the fact that many COMs are pre-biotic i.e. they act as precursors to the formation of biologically relevant species such as simple amino acids.

The specific objectives of the work to be undertaken during this project are:
• To undertake experimental investigations of the processing of complex organic molecules thermally and by ultra-violet radiation and low energy electrons.
• To undertake experimental studies of the formation of complex organic molecules.
• To use theory to calculate formation pathways of complex organic molecules and hence to use theory to guide experiments.
• To model the results obtained experimentally under astrophysically relevant conditions.

This work will use a combination of experiment and theory to look at COM chemistry (including formation, destruction and processing) on model dust grain surfaces. Theoretical calculations will guide the experimental work, by indicating the most likely molecular formation routes and destruction mechanisms. Experimental work will focus on processing of COMs, thermally and with UV radiation and low energy electrons. These experiments will lead to destruction and/or desorption of the COMs and also to the formation of new species. Additional experiments will also look at UV and electron irradiation of mixed ices containing smaller molecules, considered to be the building blocks of COMs (eg methanol, CO, water, ammonia) on a model grain surface (graphite). Irradiation of mixed ices is important as potential formation routes to COMs. UV or electron irradiation of small molecules (e.g. methanol) has previously been shown to lead to the production of reactive fragments which can go on to form larger species. Surface science techniques, including surface infrared spectroscopy and temperature programmed desorption, will be used to monitor the formation and destruction of the COMs investigated.

How to apply:
Please submit a formal application using our online application system at, including a CV, degree transcripts and certificates, statement of interest, names of two academic referees and copy of passport. On the application system use Programme of Study – PhD Chemistry.

Applicants will have an excellent academic record and should have received or be expected to receive a relevant first or upper-second class honours degree in a relevant subject. Candidates from outside the UK must provide a valid IELTS with a score of 6.5 overall and 6.0 in all components.

For enquiries about the application process contact Anna Izykowska ([Email Address Removed])

For enquiries about the project contact Prof Wendy Brown ([Email Address Removed])

Funding Notes

The full award is available to UK and to EU students who have been ordinarily resident in the UK for the previous 3 years. EU candidates who do not meet this criteria will be eligible for a fee waiver only and Overseas (non EU) students are not eligible to apply.

The EPSRC award covers Home/EU PhD fees, a tax-free living allowance at Research Council UK rates (currently £14,777 per annum) and research/training expenses for 3.5 years.

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