Using Robotics to Remove the Harmful Effects of Toxic Metals in Industrially Relevant Metal-Catalysed Processes

   Department of Chemistry

This project is no longer listed on and may not be available.

Click here to search for PhD studentship opportunities
  Dr Charlotte Willans, Dr L Wilson  No more applications being accepted  Competition Funded PhD Project (Students Worldwide)

About the Project

Organometallic catalysis is one of the most vibrant and essential areas worldwide in scientific research, with impact in a broad range of industrially relevant fields such as pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals and materials. Many metal-catalysed reactions rely on the use of precious metals such as palladium, iridium and rhodium; the high cost of these metals and risk of dwindling supply render these processes unsustainable. Attention over the last decade has turned towards the development of more abundant and cheaper base-metals. Major challenges in this field are a lack of understanding and low predictability, thus significantly higher loadings of catalyst are used when compared to precious metals. Despite being more abundant and cheaper, many of the base metals pose significant toxic risks, both when handling the precursors prior to the reaction and in their disposal, particularly as high loadings are used. Nickel, which has been developed as a highly attractive alternative for many metal-catalysed processes,1 is highly toxic.

This project will explore the use of robotics to reduce and ultimately eliminate the toxic effects of nickel when used in processes relevant to the pharmaceutical and agrochemical sectors. The generation of (pre)catalysts electrochemically and in flow,2 directly from a metal plate, will eliminate the need to handle nickel precursors in the form of powders prior to a reaction. The use of a unique flow platform for catalyst screening and optimisation3 will generate data to understand the processes, thus enabling the amount of nickel required for a particular reaction to be reduced. Electrochemical recovery of the nickel following the process will reduce the risk of the metals being released into waste streams. The ultimate goal is to have a closed loop system (see Figure) whereby the catalyst is electrochemically generated from a nickel plate, used directly in a catalytic reaction (either for screening or for large-scale industrial synthesis), and the nickel electrochemically removed back on to a plate and looped back for reuse. The technological development will also be relevant to other types of metal catalysts and processes.

What is ALBERT?

Doctoral Training in Autonomous Robotic Systems for Laboratory Experiments 

A cohort of students will be part of a mini, pilot Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) focused on developing the science, engineering, and socio-technology that underpins building robots required for laboratory automation, e.g. in chemistry and related sciences. The first cohort began their PhD projects in 2023, and the second cohort in 2024. Albert represents an autonomous robot that conducts laboratory experiments that are cleaner, greener, safer, and cheaper than anything achievable with today's conventional techniques and technologies. Developing Albert offers significant socio-technical problems for science, engineering, social sciences, and the humanities. The YorRobots Executive and the Institute for Safe Autonomy will provide international leadership for this research area.

You will follow our core cohort-based training programme to support the development of scientific, transferable and employability skills, as well as training on specific techniques and equipment. Training includes employability and professionalism, graduate teaching assistant training and guidance on writing papers.

There will be opportunities for networking and sharing your work both within and beyond the University. Funding is provided to enable you to attend conferences and external training. The department also runs a varied and comprehensive seminar programme.

Equality and Diversity

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:

As part of our commitment to Equality and Diversity, and Widening Participation, we are working with the YCEDE project ( to improve the number of under-represented groups participating in doctoral study.  

Entry requirements 

You should hold or expect to achieve the equivalent of at least a UK upper second class degree in Chemistry or a relevant related subject. Check the entry requirements for your country:

English language requirements:

For more information about the project, click on the supervisor's name above to email them. 

For more information about the application process or funding, please click on email institution.

Guidance for applicants:

Submit an online PhD in Chemistry application:

Please select CDT Autonomous Robotic Systems for Lab Experiments from the drop down menu for How will your studies be funded?

The start date of the PhD will be 16 September 2024

Chemistry (6) Physics (29)

Funding Notes

This project is part of the EPSRC ALBERT Doctoral Training Programme. Appointed candidates will be fully-funded for 3.5 years. The funding includes:
Tax-free annual UKRI stipend (£18,622 full time for 2023/24) tuition fees (at the home or overseas rate) plus generous research training and support grant (RTSG).
International students are welcome to apply for this project, however the number of awards we can make to international applicants are limited
Not all projects will be funded; a limited number of strong candidates will be appointed via a competitive process.

How good is research at University of York in Chemistry?

Research output data provided by the Research Excellence Framework (REF)

Click here to see the results for all UK universities

Where will I study?