Interdisciplinary blog

MDR Vacation Bursary Project: Heterogeneous catalysts

July 18, 2013
by Jamie Purkis


Design of single-site, heterogeneous catalysts for the energy efficient production of nylon precursors from renewable and biomass sources

By Jamie Purkis, undergraduate student, Chemistry, Faculty of Natural and the Environmental Sciences

I am a second year chemistry student currently studying for a Master of Science in Chemistry (MSc); part of which involves weekly undergraduate laboratory practicals.

After completing a practical on the synthesis of an ‘aluminophosphate’ catalyst (solid-state materials that can increase the rate of chemical reactions), I researched the field further and decided to apply for a summer project in the synthesis and characterisation of these materials.

jamie purkis copyrightWorking under the supervision of Dr. Robert Raja and his research group, the project involves the careful design and testing of porous, heterogeneous catalysts made from aluminium and phosphorous precursors. Creating a reaction of these in water under high temperature and pressure, aluminophosphate catalysts can be synthesised. By subtly changing the composition of this reaction, the ratios of aluminium and phosphorous or even new elements, like cobalt and magnesium, can be incorporated into the catalyst framework, changing its properties.

Catalysts are then used in a variety of chemical transformations; for example, conversion of crude oil into petrol and diesel. Of particular interest to this project, however, is the industrial production of nylon, a very common polymer with a range of everyday applications (clothing, for example).

Traditionally, the production of nylon involves energy-intensive processes and environmentally-damaging reagents, some of which are harmful and can contribute to the emission of carbon dioxide by using lots of energy. The by-products from nylon production can also end up in landfill; not at all a ‘green’ process.

Nylon can be synthesised via intermediate chemicals, which can ultimately be derived from renewable plant sugars, like glucose and fructose. By designing and testing these catalysts, we aim to optimise its production from a range of possible renewable sources – so-called “green chemistry”. Using chemicals from plants obviously makes the process more renewable, and less energy-intensive, requiring less harmful reagents (the catalysis can even be done using oxygen from the air). Fewer non-renewable waste chemicals are produced and liberation of greenhouse gases can be mitigated.

Reducing waste and using less energy is clearly desirable for industry, making this area an ever-expanding field with a wide scope for development on the research done on this project. The synthesis, characterisation and screening of a range of aluminophosphate catalysts may also be developed further, with each one being tested for the efficiency of transformation processes. Therefore, industrial catalysis represents a possible avenue for my final year project or even a PhD research project.

MDR Vacation Bursary blog series available at:

Categories: Blog. Tags: aluminophosphate, catalysts, chemistry and environment, Dr. Robert Raja, engineering, epsrc, Jamie Purkis, and vacation bursary. Project names: heterogeneous catalysts for the energy efficient production of nylon precursors from renewable and biomass sources.