PROFESSOR PLASTICS: DUNCAN WASS
Amy Ludford chats to Professor Duncan Wass, whose work at the Cardiff Catalysis institute is at the forefront of eco-friendly tech.
Catalysis is crucial to almost any mass-production industry. It’s a process in which an added substance, or catalyst, creates an alternative route for a chemical reaction, requiring less energy than if the reaction was left to occur naturally. Traditionally, its applications have focused on taking cheap reactants, namely fossil fuels and gases, and rapidly creating large volumes of product for consumers, like fuels, plastics, paints, and pharmaceuticals.
Lots of waste is created as a result of this, though, and it’s normally harmful. Most common is CO2, but also sulphur dioxide, a known cause of acid rain and various acids which, if not properly disposed of, may end up in our rivers and oceans. It’s not all doom and gloom though, as this same technology is now being applied to turn the tide, finding uses for these waste products and making production processes more sustainable.
Now in its 10th year, the Cardiff Catalysis Institute (CCI) is headed by Professor Duncan Wass and are world leaders in catalysis research, working to understand catalysis, develop new processes, promoting its use as a sustainable technology for industries. They’ve recently been awarded £7 million in funding to research environmental applications of catalysis: some exciting stuff is coming out of their Cardiff University-based laboratory.
“We look at all of the relevant branches of catalysis, which is quite unique in the UK,” says Wass, referring to the three forms of catalyst used in industry: heterogeneous, homogeneous, and biological. Homogeneous catalysts are solids a gas is passed over; many industrial processes use these, particularly petrochemical industries. Homogenous catalysts are in the same state as the reactant, and are for making more elaborate products, like pharmaceuticals. Finally, biological catalysts are the enzymes, nature’s catalysts, used to produce industrial biotechnology.
“They’re very different branches of science, and any one branch isn’t necessarily the best for a particular problem. The fact we bring them together and apply them all to an issue gives us an advantage.”
One of their biggest principles is creating a circular economy. Traditional catalytic processes in industry are linear, with reactants only being used once and creating waste products at the end. A circular economy takes the same catalytic technology and applies it to breaking products down into something that you can then put back into the cycle. One such way to achieve this is recycling plastic.
“Many plastics are made using catalysts; if you have a catalyst that makes a polymer, you can find a catalyst that reduces it back to the raw material,” explains Wass. “Breaking polymers down into a reusable liquid and making something new is a really elegant and efficient way to solve recycling problems.”
There are some big developments on the horizon, but barriers need to be overcome first. Catalysts used today come from a century of development, but they’re made to work on dry fossil fuels. Current studies have focused on liquids and alcohols in research, such as converting waste beer into a biofuel by converting the ethanol in it (as well as in other alcoholic drinks) to butanol: a more stable alcohol with more energy in each molecule.
“[Existing] catalysts don’t work well in liquid,” Wass notes – so they are designing something new. “Our equipment has us at the cusp of fundamentally understanding how catalysts work. That may not be headline news, but for the practical applications of catalysis, the more we understand about them the better the catalysts we can design.”
Other environmental applications focus on converting waste CO2 from steelworks and power stations to methanol or molecules with multiple carbons. This is a proposed new and renewable source for carbon as society moves away from fossil fuels. What would that mean for such companies, some of whom represent key pillars of industry in south Wales?
“This is an opportunity for those industries,” says Wass; “it’s a way to mitigate the emissions they create. A lot of CO2 is sequestered, buried underground to prevent it entering the atmosphere. If we convert that CO2 into a useful product, it’s still sequestered, but it’s utilised for our benefit.”
Good research is coming from the CCI, helping previously wasteful companies clean up their act, carving a greener, more sustainable future.