23 Dec 2011
Who or what inspired you to pursue a career in science?
My family always encouraged me to do my best as a student. My grandfather was a scientist, which helped develop my interest in science. When I was young he made me plan out experiments to work out the best way to do something when I was helping him in the garden. Enthusiastic secondary school teachers were a big boost as I grew up too, especially as I thought about going to university.
What is your research topic?
My research is about increasing our understanding, and improving the chemistry needed, to be able to convert natural gas and biomass feeds into more useful commodities, such as transport fuels, by reactions of carbon monoxide and hydrogen (cobalt catalysis).
What is innovative about your most recent research project?
Catalytic chemists often look at what happens before or after a reaction occurs. I'm one of a number of scientists making new in situ apparatus, which uses x-ray spectroscopies to follow what goes on during the reactions themselves, and how the catalyst changes, or is modified by, the reaction process. This is especially challenging for reactions that are usually done at high temperatures and pressures.
Are there any potential applications or any competitive advantages for industry as a result of your research?
The chemistry I'm working on is very much industrial already with large scale plants in South Africa, Malaysia and Qatar. As crude oil becomes more expensive, generating transport fuels from other sources, such as natural gas or biomass, is increasingly appealing. Understanding the underlying chemistry should allow better control of the product stream and savings on subsequent processing or unwanted by-product waste.
Has this work led your group to any other promising research?
I've looked at how platinum and similar metals, used to promote catalytic reactions of this type, help the process. This highlighted a lot of things about the interaction and diffusion of hydrogen on oxides (on which metal catalysts are usually supported) that remain unknown and we are now beginning more fundamental work in this area.
What have been your proudest achievements so far?
Near the end of my PhD, a series of things all came together to allow me to propose and carry out an experiment I wouldn't otherwise have attempted. This was to answer a key question about the oxidation state of gold in a particular reaction - and amazingly, it worked.
Encouraging children to be interested in science is also really important to me, and so being interviewed for Radio 5 about liquid nitrogen ice cream during one of the Cambridge Science Festivals was also an exciting experience.
What is the next milestone in your career?
To discover something amazing, obviously! I don't know about milestones, but my next move, I hope, will be to find a job back in the UK using the skills I've developed doing this sort of chemistry. I'm currently in California completing a post-doc and missing cold English winters!
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