Prestigious award for pioneer of gold catalysis
5 October 2017
A Cardiff University scientist who discovered a more environmentally friendly way of producing one of the world’s most commonly used plastics, PVC, has been honoured with a coveted ENI award.
Professor Graham Hutchings, Director of Cardiff University’s Cardiff Catalysis Institute, has been awarded the Advanced Environmental Solutions Prize from the Italian company ENI for developing a substitute for the harmful and toxic mercury catalyst that is used in PVC’s production process.
Described as the ‘Nobel Prize of energy research’, the ENI awards are one of the top prizes for researchers in the field of energy and environmental science and have a prestigious list of recipients in its 10-year history.
Professor Hutchings will receive a gold medal of the Italian State Mint.
Among his many successes, Professor Hutchings’ most valued discovery is that the precious metal gold has the remarkable ability to catalyse reactions much more efficiently than others that are used in industry. In particular, gold can be used in the reaction to produce vinyl chloride – the main ingredient of one of the world’s most commonly used plastic, PVC.
As a result of Professor Hutchings’ pioneering work, a gold catalyst is now being produced at a purpose built factory in China by global chemicals company Johnson Matthey in order to catalyse the production of vinyl chloride – the first time in over 50 years that a complete overhaul in catalyst formulation has been implemented to produce a commodity chemical.
More significantly, the gold catalyst has replaced an extremely harmful mercury catalyst that was previously used in this particular production process. The hugely toxic mercury becomes volatile during this process and can therefore make its way into the surrounding environment. The WHO have declared it as a significant threat to human health.
The Minamata Convention on Mercury, a binding international treaty signed by nearly 140 countries in 2013, contains a specific clause on vinyl chloride, stating that after 2017, new plants producing vinyl chloride cannot use mercury catalysts. After 2022, all plants producing vinyl chloride must go mercury-free.
China is the world’s biggest producer of PVC, using coal as a starting material and a mercury catalyst to eventually arrive at vinyl chloride.
Current estimates suggest that 20 million tonnes of vinyl chloride could be manufactured each year using the gold catalyst.
Originally from Weymouth in Dorset, Professor Hutchings obtained his PhD in Biological Chemistry from University College London, before embarking on a career in industry at ICI. He entered academia in 1984 at the University of Witwatersrand in South Africa before joining the University of Liverpool in 1987.
Professor Hutchings joined Cardiff University in 1997 as Professor of Physical Chemistry and Head of the School of Chemistry. Professor Hutchings now holds the role of Regius Professor of Physical Chemistry and Director of the world-renowned Cardiff Catalysis Institute.
Professor Hutchings’ was selected for the award by the ENI’s Scientific Committee, which is of the highest level and comprises researchers and scientists from some of the world’s most prestigious research institutes.
The distinguished representatives who sit on the selection committee of the ENI awards have included: Sir Harold W. Kroto, Nobel Prize winner in 1996 for Chemistry; Alan Hegger, Nobel Prize 2000 for Chemistry; and Theodor Wolfgang Haensch, winner of the 2005 Nobel Prize for Physics.