A research team that has developed a more sustainable way of producing nylon has been named winner of a prestigious Horizon Prize, which celebrates discoveries and innovations pushing the boundaries of science.

Dr Simon Freakley, from the Institute for Sustainability at the University of Bath, is a member of the ‘Greener route to nylon production’ group awarded the esteemed Royal Society of Chemistry’s (RSC’s) Environment, Sustainability and Energy Horizon Prize: John Jeyes Prize.

The team is a collaboration between Cardiff University, UBE Corporation, Shanghai Jiao Tong University, University of Bath, the Research Complex at Harwell and Lehigh University.

The Horizon Prizes highlight exciting, contemporary chemical science at the cutting edge of research and innovation. These prizes are for groups, teams, and collaborations of any form or size who are opening up new directions and possibilities in their field, through ground-breaking scientific developments.

The RSC Prizes have recognised excellence in the chemical sciences for more than 150 years. This year’s winners join a prominent list of past winners in the RSC’s prize portfolio, 60 of whom have gone on to win Nobel Prizes for their work.

The team receives a trophy and a video showcasing their work, and each team member receives a certificate.

Every year, nearly 2.5 million tons of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is used to upgrade the raw materials (feedstocks) used in chemical manufacturing, including in the manufacturing of nylon.

The team’s research offers a breakthrough for producing cyclohexanone oxime, a crucial intermediate in the synthesis of Nylon-6. They have created a catalyst system that can generate H2O2 on demand, using readily available feedstocks, and produce cyclohexanone oxime at the same time in one reactor.

Dr Freakley said: “Combining these two processes presented a significant challenge in catalyst design as each process works optimally at very different conditions. It’s a testament to the teamwork and industrial collaboration, spanning materials synthesis, characterisation, and reaction design, that allowed us to achieve this.”

The adoption of this technology paves the way for cleaner, more efficient chemical production by generating H2O2 where it is needed. And, existing infrastructure can likely be adapted to use the technology, lowering the barrier to industrial adoption. The study was recently reported in Science.

Dr Helen Pain, Chief Executive of the RSC, said: “The chemical sciences cover a rich and diverse collection of disciplines, from fundamental understanding of materials and the living world to applications in medicine, sustainability, technology and more. By working together across borders and disciplines, chemists are finding solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges.”