Sustainable chemical approaches to the production of new and existing chemical products and materials is of crucial importance world-wide over the next decades. At UCL we are pioneering novel green synthetic strategies for molecular assembly and materials construction. Here, the incorporation of renewable feedstocks into our synthetic methodologies is also of high priority. Other activities includes establishing processes for plastics molecular recycling. We are also exploring sustainable approaches for energy storage, through developing and improving the design of batteries and other devices, with a strong focus on clean electrode materials synthesis and sustainable electrolytes.
Our group is interested in establishing structure-function relationships in functional materials, including catalytic solids and energy materials as a function of both time and space using both X-ray & optical spectroscopic and scattering methods applied under in situ and operando conditions. Specific topics include the development of novel chemical imaging techniques for the study of single catalyst bodies/fuel cells/batteries and the development and characterisation of catalytic technologies for improving air quality and alternatives to fossil-fuel dependent processes.
The Blunt group uses various surface science techniques, and in particular scanning probe microscopy, to study the self-assembly of two-dimensional (2D) molecular networks. These novel structures have multiple potential applications in energy storage, energy generation and as new catalytic materials. Current work is focussed on the design and synthesis of 2D covalent-organic frameworks for the electrocatalytic reduction of CO2 and the alignment of organic semiconducting polymer thin-films for use in devices such as organic field-effect transistors and organic solar cells.
Research in the Carmalt and Parkin group focuses on clean energy, precursor synthesis and chemical vapour deposition (CVD). Materials for sustainable energy storage and conversion technologies, such as aqueous electrolyte systems, carbon dioxide reduction catalysts and water splitting devices are being developed. We also work on the development and isolation of molecular precursors, with minimal environmental and cost implications. These precursors are used for CVD to grow functional coatings for photovoltaic and optoelectronic applications, and offer more effective control over purity, stoichiometry and morphology of the films. CVD is also used to grow thin films on various substrates for photocatalytic, transparent conductors and antimicrobial applications.
The main area of research in the Castagnolo group is the development of green and sustainable methodologies for the synthesis of drugs, chemicals and drug-like compounds, via biocatalysis and chemoenzymatic cascades. Current work focuses on three main themes: 1) Synthesis of aromatic heterocycles via chemo-enzymatic cascades; 2) Development of biocatalytic and chemo-enzymatic methodologies for the synthesis of chiral sulfur compounds; 3) Development of new enzymes and biocatalysts for the construction of C-C bonds.
Our group has a long-standing interest in the use of freely available dioxygen in air to activate C-H bonds (aerobic C-H activation) for application in a variety of reactions. We are creating a platform of novel and green aerobic C-H activation methodologies to replace classical C-H activation strategies that typically require toxic, expensive and/or very rare metals.
The Clarke group focus on the laser spectroscopy of conjugated organic materials such as conducting polymers. In particular, we use Raman and transient absorption spectroscopy to explore these materials for applications such as organic photovoltaics and LEDs, seeking to establish structure-function relationships to enhance device efficiencies.
Clean Materials Technology Group is led by Professor Jawwad Darr. The group seeks to use greener (supercritical water), controllable, rapid and scalable manufacturing technologies to develop advanced inorganic materials for the benefit of society. Applications include ceramic inks, energy materials, catalysts magnetic and dielectric materials and biomedical materials. A strong recent theme has been in the development of accelerated materials discovery methods to develop better battery materials.
The Hailes group is focused on developing sustainable synthetic methods using biocatalysts in single-step reactions, multi-step enzymatic or chemoenzymatic cascades and performing reactions in water. A recent focus has also been the use of biomass waste, as a sustainable feedstock to produce higher value compounds. As well as the use of enzymes for synthetic applications, we are investigating the discovery and use of enzymes for the degradation of plastics and other waste materials for molecular recycling.
Solving sustainability as described by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals is important in chemistry research. Chemistry education, should therefore address understanding of sustainability, application and impact. Systems thinking and network science can help to encompass the interdisciplinary nature of chemistry sustainability problem solving and form simpler paths through complex information. The focus is to link core chemistry principles to sustainability, delivering transformative learning, which in turn is essential for advising research, policy and lawmakers.
The Holt group uses electrochemistry along with other techniques to study mechanistic aspects of energy storage, energy generation and molecular synthesis. Current work is focused on spectroelectrochemical tool development for the study of electrocatalysts, photocatalysts and organic photovoltaics; properties of sustainable water-based electrolytes and electrosynthesis for clean production of target molecules.
As a scientific community, we are at the outset of a much-needed transition, from using petroleum-based products and material to plant-based products and materials. We want to develop new sustainable catalytic technologies to access functionally rich small molecules directly from the biomass. Our group's research focuses on the design of multifunctional ligands and the development of new metal catalysts to activate carbon oxygen bonds by employing earth abundant and non-toxic transition metals.
The Palgrave Group work on solid state materials chemistry, focusing on synthesis of new materials for renewable energy applications (halide photovoltaics, battery materials, photocatalysts). A second theme is the study of ionic liquids. We also specialise in characterisation of a wide range of materials through photoemission spectroscopy. The overall aim is to discover new functional materials through understanding of electronic and crystal structure.
The Scanlon group's primary research interests and experience are in the electronic structure and defect chemistry of emerging materials for a wide variety of applications, including but not limited to: transparent conducting oxides (TCOs), photovoltaics (PV), thermoelectrics (TEs), photoelectrochemical (PEC) water splitting, gas sensors, inorganic phosphors, solid state lighting, X-ray and γ-ray radiation detectors, Li-ion and Na-ion batteries, solid oxide fuel cells (SOFCs) and topological insulators. A recurring theme in the groups research is the use of rational chemical design to predict the properties of novel inorganic solids for the above applications, and then the full electronic structure and defect chemistry characterization of these materials to test their application suitability.
The Xu group is interested in designing and synthesising materials as well as understanding ion transport and storage in the materials at the nanometre scale for beyond-lithium energy storage chemistries and devices. We are exploiting a wide range of materials with characteristic crystal structures and atomic arrangements (local defects, short- and long-range disorder) and investigating how the characteristics change (electro)chemical processes occurring at electrode-electrolyte interface and in solid electrodes.
In the Zwijnenburg group we use computational chemistry to predict the electronic and optical properties of materials such as organic small molecules, polymers and inorganic nanoparticles. We use these predictions together with our experimental collaborators as a guide in finding better materials for solar cells, batteries and as photocatalysts for water splitting and CO2 reduction. We also have an interest in the use of the combination of high-throughput virtual screening, cheminformatics and approximate computational chemistry methods to quickly screen the properties of very large libraries (100,000s) of molecules for these type of applications.
PhD student projects in Chemical Sustainability
- Eimear Madden: Improving the cyclability of potassium-sulfur batteries
My name is Eimear, and I am studying for a PhD under the supervision of Prof Ben Slater and Dr Yang Zu, implementing both computational and experimental techniques to improve the cyclability of potassium-sulfur batteries (KSBs). The field of batteries has enjoyed a resurgence of research efforts owing to the rising popularity of environmentally friendly electric vehicles. KSBs have been proposed as a more sustainable and more powerful alternative to lithium-ion batteries. The relative earth abundance of the components of KSBs are much higher than those of lithium-ion batteries, and their theoretical specific energy density is about ten times greater. However, the realisation of KSB application is hindered by a parasitic reaction known as the shuttle effect which reduces the lifespan of the battery significantly. The aim of my research is to impede this reaction to enhance the longevity of the battery’s performance. If we can improve the efficiency of this battery, then hopefully the electrification of the transport industry can expand and eventually one day, we will all be driving electric-powered vehicles.
- Shuyi Zhang: Developing green synthesis and enzymes to break down plastics
My name is Shuyi Zhang, I am studying for PhD at the Department of Chemistry, UCL. I study under the supervision of Prof Helen Hailes and Prof John Ward. My project is constituted by two parts. For the first part, I work on the Baylis-Hillman and Ene-reductase cascade reactions. As a useful synthetic transformation used in C-C bond formation, our aim in this project is to develop one-pot chemoenzymatic syntheses using the Baylis-Hillman (B-H) reaction, which is a useful synthetic transformation employed in C-C bond formation, in aqueous media as the first step and Ene-reductiases (ERs) in the second step.
For another part of my project, I’m trying to screen and explore enzymes and microbes to break down plastics. Almost all sectors of the UK and international economies rely on plastics for construction, agriculture, textiles and white goods, but at the end of life most plastic still ends up in landfill. What we are interested in is investigating the identification of new microbes or enzymes that can degrade polyurethanes or polyamides, which is contributed to sustainable and eco-friendly development.
- Ed Williams: Green synthesis of next generation Li-ion battery anodes
My name is Ed, and I am studying for my PhD here at UCL Chemistry supervised by Professor Jawwad Darr. I am working on the green, scalable synthesis of next generation high power, high-rate lithium-ion battery anode materials. Particular focus is currently on the Continuous Hydrothermal Flow Synthesis of Wadsley-Roth structure Niobium based oxides, with an eye towards eventually testing the most promising Li-ion battery anode materials in multivalent hybrid supercapacitor devices. Wadsley-Roth crystallographic shear structure niobium oxides are of great interest for fast Li+ storage. This is due to their unique 3D multilane open tunnel structures with an abundance of Li insertion sites that offer facile Li+ diffusion paths. This, coupled with a moderate lithiation potential enables high theoretical/practical capacities, long-term cyclability, and high safety. The ultimate aim being to move towards a greener future based on renewable energy as opposed to fossil fuels such as for use in portable electronics, electric transportation and solar/wind energy storage.
- Stefanos Agrotis: Electrochemical CO2 reduction using plasma deposited catalysts
I am Stefanos Agrotis and I am a PhD student in the department of Chemistry at UCL. I work under the supervision of Prof Daren J. Caruana (UCL), who has developed a single-step material synthesis method, using atmospheric pressure plasma jet (APPJ), suitable for patterning of metals and other inorganic materials and Dr Albertus Denny Handoko (IMRE, A Star, Singapore) who is an expert in electrocatalytic assessment of materials. One of the most important challenge todays is devising sufficient energy production while preserving the environment. Currently, 80% of global energy demand comes from fossil fuels, leading to extremely high global CO2 emissions (~32 billion tonnes per year). One of the promising ways to address this issue is to capture the CO2 from point sources for carbon utilization (CCU). CCU offers the possibility of carbon recycling, where CO2 is converted into fuel or chemical precursor moieties that can be fed back into production cycle, thus creating a closed-loop anthropogenic Carbon Cycle. Electrocatalytic conversion is probably one of the most versatile catalysis approaches to convert CO2 with clear pathway into industrial-scale production. Unlike thermal catalysis, it can be operated on-demand, and can be supplied with flexible energy sources, including renewables that have become increasingly more affordable and accessible. The aim of my research is to optimise and understand the plasma mediated process by assessing the electrocatalytic activity of various transition metals deposited by this method. I will then explore whether I can synthesise new active metal catalyst compositions, without the need of thermal treatments and using a power output of 50 W or less.
- Charlie Nason: Next-generation materials for potassium ion batteries
My name is Charlie Nason and the focus of my PhD here at UCL within Dr Yang Xu’s research group, is next-generation materials for monovalent ion batteries. With the world rapidly switching to greener sources of energy, such as wind and solar power, there is an emerging critical problem. The current battery materials are woefully ill-suited for such a paradigm shift. Only with the development of electrode materials that are vastly cheaper, stabler, sustainable and with higher capacity can we ensure full divergence from fossil fuels. Excellent candidates for many of these requirements are potassium and sodium ion batteries, containing electrodes that exclude many of the critically limited elements found in today’s commercialized batteries. The aim of my current research is to investigate under-utilized layered titanium-niobate oxides as materials for potassium ion anodes, due to their favorable structure and low potential redox pairs. As much of the current research is focused on carbon-based anodes, there is a significant research gap that we aim to address.
- Charles Chen: Lead-free perovskite films for inexpensive solar cells
My name is Charles, and I am a PhD student under the supervision of Prof Robert Palgrave (UCL) and Dr Xizu Wang (A*STAR). My project involves synthesizing lead-free halide perovskite films using thermal evaporation methods. A transition to renewable energy is more than ever important today due to atmospheric CO2 concentration rising to record levels. With sun being a ubiquitous energy source, solar energy is regarded as one of the most promising renewable energy sources. However, the current photovoltaics market is dominated by silicon wafer-based solar cells, and these are known for its high manufacturing costs. Solar cells established from lead-based halide perovskites have reached a record power conversion efficiency of 25.7% and have the potential to take over silicon wafer-based technology due to its simple and inexpensive synthesis. Despite the area of halide perovskites experiencing a rapid growth within the scientific community owing to the material’s attractive optoelectronic properties and low-cost synthesis, current high-performing halide perovskite solar cells contain lead and are not stable in ambient conditions. Moreover, solution processing methods that allow perovskite synthesis in standard laboratory environments often require the use of toxic solvents. Research efforts directed at lead-free halide perovskite films deposited via thermal evaporation method, which doesn’t require any use of solvents, might just be the way to produce powerful yet inexpensive solar cells that are both stable and safe to use.