Dr Karen Wilson Project Titles
1. Tailored catalysts for the conversion of biomass to chemicals
Over the last century heterogeneous catalysis has played a pivotal role in developing energy efficient process for the petrochemical, fine and bulk chemical industries. One of the grand challenges for the 21st century is the transformation of these industries for a world utilising sustainable non-petroleum based resources. While these sectors have great experience handling hydrocarbon feedstocks, not all of this knowledge is directly transferable to utilising highly oxygenated biomass derived compounds. In particular, as illustrated in scheme 1 for the synthesis of adipic acid from petroleum or renewable feedstocks, chemical transformations of bio-molecules will involve deoxygenating highly functional groups to reach the target molecule, rather than being oxidised as is the case starting from crude oil resources. Such chemistry urgently requires new classes of catalyst compatible with these hydrophilic, bulky substrates which if derived from fermentation processes, may be generated in high dilution aqueous “broths”.
Our research group is currently developing new solid acid and base catalyst that can initiate these transformations. This project will build upon this work to utilise these new clean technologies for the conversion of biomass derived molecules to fuels or chemicals. Experience of a range of state of the art analytical techniques including XPS, XRD, DRIFTS and SEM for the characterisation of heterogeneous catalysts will be gained during this project.
2. Designer catalysts for the synthesis of renewable fuels
The combination of dwindling oil reserves and growing concerns over carbon dioxide emissions and associated climate change is driving the urgent development of clean, sustainable energy supplies. Biodiesel is non-toxic and biodegradable, with the potential for closed CO2 cycles and thus vastly reduced carbon footprints compared with petroleum fuels. However, current manufacturing routes employing soluble catalysts are very energy inefficient and produce copious amounts of contaminated water waste. This project will investigate the development of tailored porous catalysts for biofuel synthesis, which offer several process advantages by eliminating the need for quench steps (and associated waste water), while allowing operation in a continuous reactor. A particular focus of the research will be the design of porous networks comprising interconnected hierarchical macroporous mesoporous channels (Figure 1) to enhance mass-transport properties of viscous plant oils during biodiesel synthesis. Experience of a range of state of the art analytical techniques including XPS, XRD, DRIFTS and SEM for the characterisation of heterogeneous catalysts will be gained during this project.
Figure 1. (a) SEM and (b, c) low and high magnification TEM images for hierarchical macro-mesoporous SiO2.