Chemist awarded £1M to develop catalysts of the future

A University of Bath chemist has received £1M to develop cheaper and more environmentally friendly catalysts with potential applications in pharmaceuticals, agriculture, food additives and plastics.

Dr Ruth Webster from the Department of Chemistry will lead the five-year project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Dr Ruth Webster

Using catalysts to enable, speed up or make chemical reactions more efficient is essential to our modern economy – it is estimated that 35% of the world’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) relies on catalysis in some way.

However many catalysts need expensive, rare or environmentally damaging materials to work, including platinum, rhodium and palladium. Dr Webster’s team will investigate using iron, which is the fourth most abundant element on Earth, and comparatively cheap, to create new methods of catalysis.

They believe iron holds unfulfilled potential as a catalyst and will test new ideas to use iron catalysts and phosphorus to produce molecules called phosphines, which are crucial for manufacturing pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals such as fertilisers. They are also used in some food additives, plastics and flame retardants. Existing methods to produce phosphines are outdated, some not having changed since the 1800s, and are therefore limited and wasteful.

By using iron as the basis of new catalysts then sustainability is built in from the start.

Dr Webster said: “Phosphines play a vital role in modern industrial processes, but we need new ways to make them. The only way to do this is to understand fundamental bond breaking and bond making processes and what better way to do this than through iron, which we have already shown has the potential to undertake unique phosphorus bond transformations.

“We’re grateful to EPSRC for funding this project.”

The researchers from the University of Bath will be working with colleagues at the University of Bristol and the University of Rochester, New York, which begins in September.

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