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Spying on Chemistry in Real-Time

New chemical analysis facility is first of its type

by University of Bath
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University of BathThe facility will allow researchers to monitor multiple aspects of a chemical reaction simultaneouslyPhoto Courtesy of: University of Bath

Scientists at the University of Bath will soon be able to watch chemical reactions happen in real-time, helping them to develop new and better catalysts for a range of key future applications including making high-performance biodegradable plastics, producing hydrogen fuel from water and synthesizing paracetamol from waste citrus fruit.

The university's Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) will be the home to a world-leading £1.3 million facility that combines a unique selection of state-of-the-art analytical equipment which will allow researchers to analyse complex chemical reactions as they happen in many different ways simultaneously.

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The equipment, funded jointly by the University and the Engineering & Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), will be able to provide direct insight into the pathway a reaction follows to produce a certain chemical mixture. This knowledge is key to optimising product yields whilst reducing energy consumption and minimizing waste.

In addition to gaining a deeper understanding of how existing processes occur, the researchers will use the facility to develop new catalysts, molecules that enable complex chemical reactions, which play a vital role in addressing major global challenges such as sustainable energy, mitigation of greenhouse gases, destroying atmospheric and water pollutants, and transforming food and crop waste into valuable products.

The scientists are working closely with a consortium of industrial partners to further develop bespoke methods and instrumentation, advise on industrially relevant challenges and accelerate the impact of their research findings.

The scientific lead, Whorrod Research Fellow Dr Ulrich Hintermair, said: "It is notoriously difficult to understand of how catalysts work because whilst we can monitor a reaction by watching the starting materials being consumed and products building up, it can be hard to detect low concentrations of transient intermediates that only exist for short periods of time. It's also very easy to miss traces of side-products that can tell you a lot about when and how a system derails into undesired reaction pathways or deactivates, unless you specifically look for them.

"This facility will allow scientists to get a comprehensive picture of the reaction network directly under reaction conditions in one go. Integrating all of these machines into one system means that we will be able to get much better quality and quantity of data than we could get using them separately."

The facility will include: high resolution multi-nuclear Flow NMR (Nuclear Magnetic Resonance), liquid phase and headspace mass spectrometry, chiral HPLC (High Performance Liquid Chromatography), UV-visible spectroscopy and EPR (Electron Paramagnetic Resonance), housed in a dedicated laboratory as part of the University's Chemical Characterisation & Analysis Facility (CCAF).

A dedicated instrument specialist will be hired to manage and develop the new setup, and the university aims to have the facility up and running by the end of 2016. The equipment will be initially utilized by academic scientists and engineers at the University of Bath, in addition to industrial project partners AstraZeneca, Bruker, CatSci, Johnson Matthey and S-PACT.

Once fully commissioned, the facility will become a national resource available to other UK scientists and engineers for both academic research and commercial use, including partners within the EPSRC UK Catalysis Hub.

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Director of the CSCT Professor Matthew Davidson added: "We are delighted to have received this major investment in state-or-the-art catalyst characterization equipment.

"Catalytic science is central to the development of new sustainable technologies and this new facility will keep the Centre and its industrial partners at the forefront of international catalysis research."

The funding is announced at the CSCT's annual Summer Showcase held on 11 and 12 July which brings together doctoral students, leading academics, international and industrial partners to present their work, share ideas and forge collaborations in the field of sustainability.