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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/W023024/1
Title: Astrocatalysis: In Operando Studies Of Catalysis And Photocatalysis Of Space-abundant Transition Metals
Principal Investigator: McCoustra, Professor MRS
Other Investigators:
Yiu, Dr HHP
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Miss V Cabedo Soto
Project Partners:
Autonomous University of Barcelona (UAB) Johnson Matthey Max Planck Institutes
Department: Sch of Engineering and Physical Science
Organisation: Heriot-Watt University
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 01 July 2022 Ends: 30 June 2026 Value (£): 901,228
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Catalysis & Applied Catalysis
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
09 Feb 2022 EPSRC Physical Sciences Prioritisation Panel - February 2022 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
Catalysis is crucially important. It feeds us, clothes us and ensures that we are healthy. Fundamentally, catalytic processes in space may even be responsible for our very existence by generating the rich chemical environment from which chemistry evolved into biology. While we understand much of the early chemistry that occurs in cold and dark regions in space before stars and planets form and the important role of icy dust in those regions (and can observe it today in remote stars scrutinised by advanced telescopes designed to see molecules), our understanding of the true catalytic role of dust and the possibility of common catalytic chemistries employed terrestrially such a Haber-Bosch and Fischer-Tropsch is very limited.

Catalysis is a key enabler in chemical synthesis and the UK, through Johnson-Matthey and others, is a leading global provider of catalytic materials and technologies. Recently, we have seen moves to more closely integrate study of fundamental catalytic processes with operational catalysis as a means of more insightful development of catalysts and catalysis. Innovation in catalysis research has increasingly focussed on (1) single atom (SA) and nano-cluster (NC) catalysts; (2) experimental investigations under catalytic operating conditions (in operando); and (3) integration of experimental data with multi-scale computational chemistry and chemical engineering coupled with artificial intelligence methods to leverage in operando simulation and discovery in catalysis. In addition, issues of sustainability are being addressed by the drive to employ Earth-abundant materials as catalysts. In considering catalytic and photocatalytic processes that might occur in space, this modern approach to catalysis has immense potential to enhance our understanding of chemical synthesis in space environments. As such, we seek to employ this approach in developing astrocatalysis; studies of catalytic processes using space-abundant materials under relevant astrophysical conditions.

The UK Leadership in catalysis is recognised by EPSRC, by inclusion in its portfolio, grants currently worth £240M. A significant fraction of this investment is associated with the EPSRC-supported National Catalysis Hub based at Harwell that has enhanced UK leadership in catalysis. This programme will enhance that portfolio and develop that leadership in new directions by uniquely integrating fundamental experiments and theoretical calculations aimed at understanding heterogeneous synthesis of small organics from simple precursors as demonstrated to occur in space environments. These chemistries will use SA and NC approaches to explore Haber-Bosch and Fischer-Tropsch processes as might occur in such environments. Such studies will fundamentally inform on processes that consume at least 5% of global energy production and where tiny tweaks in the chemistry can see a significant reduction in global CO2 emissions.

We will explore the role of catalysis and photocatalysis in relevant astrophysical environments in operando using space abundant transition metal (TM; Fe, Ni, Cr, and Co) single atom (SA) and nano-cluster (NC) catalysts. We will extend the known organic chemistry coupling carbon, oxygen and nitrogen and reveal aspects of the less studied, but biologically crucial, sulfur and phosphorus chemistries, under experimental conditions that reflect a variety of interstellar environments, such as Stellar Nebulae (SN), Proto-planetary Disks (PPDs) and Proto-planetary atmospheres (PPs). This work will uniquely combine experimental and computational studies to address fundamental questions of chemical evolution in space in order to improve and innovate on astrochemical and astrophysical evolutionary models from a catalysis perspective; and to deepen our understanding of practical catalysis on Earth.
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