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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/R009406/1
Title: Multifunctional Electrochemical Flow Platform for High-Throughput Synthesis & Optimisation of Catalysts
Principal Investigator: Willans, Dr C
Other Investigators:
Nguyen, Dr BN Kapur, Professor N Bourne, Dr RA
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Department: Sch of Chemistry
Organisation: University of Leeds
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 01 January 2018 Ends: 31 March 2022 Value (£): 741,347
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Catalysis & Applied Catalysis Electrochemical Science & Eng.
Manufact. Enterprise Ops& Mgmt
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Manufacturing Chemicals
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
02 Aug 2017 Engineering Prioritisation Panel Meeting 2 August 2017 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
We will develop new technology that greatly accelerates the process of discovering, developing and implementing sustainable organometallic catalysts for industrially-relevant reactions.

Many reactions in pharmaceutical, agrochemical and fine chemicals processes require metal catalysts which rely on platinum group metals (PGMs) such as palladium, platinum and rhodium. PGMs are expensive and are on the European Commission's 2014 list of 20 critical raw materials (http://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52014DC0297), which possess serious risk of dwindling supply. Furthermore, PGMs are toxic, hence must be removed from final products to levels that are often difficult/costly to achieve (<5ppm for active pharmaceutical ingredients). The currently increasing use of PGMs in the chemicals industry is therefore untenable in the medium to long-term.

Base-metals such as copper and iron are much more attractive to use as catalysts due to being significantly more abundant and typically having lower toxicity (depending upon speciation). Despite this, the use of base-metals in catalysis is rare in industry; a lack of understanding of the active species and mechanistic profiles of base-metal catalysts, which are more challenging to study than PGMs, means that reactions are unpredictable and often irreproducible. In addition, high catalyst loadings and harsh reaction conditions (when compared to, for example, palladium-catalysed reactions) are usually required.

Catalysts are generally discovered and developed using a linear process, whereby a catalyst is designed and synthesised, tested and optimised in a specific reaction, examined for substrate scope under optimised conditions, and redesigned to try and produce more active and selective (2nd generation) catalysts. In addition to being slow and labour intensive, this process risks overlooking potentially valuable catalysts. For example, due to time constraints, a 2nd generation catalyst may only be tested under conditions that are optimum for the 1st generation catalyst, when alternative and improved conditions could be more suitable.

This proposal seeks to bring together a range of complementary expertise across chemistry and engineering to develop new technology that is capable of rapidly synthesising, screening and self-optimising base-metal catalysts. Both the catalyst synthesis and catalytic reaction stages will be performed in flow cells, which enables online analysis of the output at each stage, and allows modification of the conditions as the reactions are running. Algorithms will be used so that the reactions become self-optimising i.e. conditions are automatically varied in response to the analytical data, enabling several sets of conditions to be screened for a number of catalysts within a relatively short period of time.

Our aim is for the technology to be adopted by both academic and industrial laboratories for the development of catalysts more broadly. We will make all information relating to reactor designs, variables, algorithms etc. open access, so that other researchers can replicate and apply the technology. Data relating to base-metal catalysed reactions will be added to a searchable database; this will provide a valuable resource to others studying these types of reactions, enabling a more knowledge-based and frontier-leading approach to catalyst development.

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Organisation Website: http://www.leeds.ac.uk