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Cardiff strikes gold

21 November 2016

The world-leading Cardiff Catalysis Institute (CCI) is moving from strength to strength in 2016. From creating gold catalysts that are revolutionising the manufacturing industry, to advances in water purification and cleaner car emissions, these are just some ways in which Cardiff scientists are translating catalysis research into areas that the public will find valuable and beneficial.    

“It was a rainy Saturday afternoon in 1982, Johannesburg. My wife was studying and my children were playing happily. Television didn’t start until 5 o’clock. Effectively, I was bored. I thought I’d better do some work, so I got out my briefcase and read a paper…

This was the moment I made the discovery of a lifetime: that gold would be a great catalyst. Never before had this been considered, as gold normally was seen as a very unreactive metal. However, HowHafter realising that if I used different parameters to re-plot (using graph paper no less) this paper’s data, which beforehand had sadly been incorrectly interpreted, I was amazed to see a smooth curve appearing, which showed that gold indeed had these remarkable properties. I convinced my management at the time to build a reactor to test this out, and sure enough we found that gold was the best catalyst there was.

Today the CCI is carrying this vision of discovery forwards, tackling and solving the most challenging problems in the field of catalysis and applying our findings to new, untapped areas in society. We work with nearly 20 different companies worldwide in fields as varied as energy, automation and food production, seeking to develop new and sustainable catalysis processes that positively impact modern living.

In our work with Jaguar Land Rover, for example, we’re developing better car exhaust catalysts for diesel engine catalytic converters, reducing nitrous oxide emissions. This is perhaps the main area where the general public is aware of catalysis in action. Here the car exhaust fumes flow over the catalyst installed in the car, where a reaction takes place that removes pollutants from the exiting airflow. The effect this has had on cleaning up the environment has been dramatic.

We’re also discovering that catalysis is part of the answer for purifying and reusing water in commercial and domestic properties, reducing water wastage.

Right now, all water entering a property is drinking water, and is used for everything from food preparation to toilet flushing. However, if greywater (water from the bath or dishwasher, off the roof etc.) could be collected and purified – using catalysis – then it could be continually reused within properties for toilets and clothes-washing. The practicalities here remain the same: contaminated water flows over a catalyst within a tube and comes out as clean water. This has positive implications for urban centres like London which can be ‘water-starved’ in dry summers.

Back to the gold catalysts. This is perhaps our biggest innovation at the CCI, which stemmed from my personal research. Having discovered that gold becomes very reactive when subdivided into tiny nanoparticles, a state ideal for catalysis, we sought to put this into practice.

Using the CCI’s world class facilities , we developed a method for gold to be used as a catalyst in the production of vinyl chloride monomer (VCM), a major commodity chemical which is polymerised (joined together) to make the commercial plastic PVC. Originally this process used a very harmful mercury catalyst. The gases involved in this reaction volatilize the mercury, causing some of it to be carried out the reactor with the products. It is estimated that for the 30m tonnes of PVC manufactured each year, nearly 2000 tonnes of mercury is released into the atmosphere. Replacing it with gold makes the process drastically less toxic, much cleaner, and even more efficient.

Working with Johnson Matthey our gold catalyst has been commercialised in China and is widely used within VCM manufacturing; a brand new facility has been built in Shanghai to specially produce gold catalysts for industry. It’s been extremely gratifying to see a true ‘eureka moment’ in 1982 progress into actual commercial reality, a success that really will change lives.

In the wake of this comes the rare honour of having a prestigious Regius Professorship awarded to Cardiff’s School of Chemistry on behalf of HRM the Queen, the first ever to be bestowed in Wales. Since the reign of Queen Victoria very few of these Professorships have been granted, making them extremely rare, so it was incredibly special for myself to be given the title of Regius Professor for the Queen’s 90th Birthday, a privilege that recognises not just my work but that of the entire CCI and Cardiff’s School of Chemistry.

The critical mass of catalysis expertise within the CCI is immense, and still growing. We’ll be moving into fantastic new accommodation on Cardiff’s Innovation Campus in two years’ time, boosting our already state-of-the-art facilities to new heights. What really excites me is the breadth of what we’re doing and the massive impact it’s having on society. Hopefully we’ll continue to lead the way, publishing really high-impact seminal papers whilst seeking their practical applications. It’s the thrill of finding things out, it’s just fantastic. It’s like a hobby.”