Innovative new catalyst materials can create more sustainable processes in chemical industry that reduce greenhouse gas emissions by harnessing sunlight and Carbon Dioxide (CO2) as fuel.

  • Sunlight exposure can boost the efficiency and ability of metal nanoparticle catalyst materials to make or break chemical bonds
  • £1.46M UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship award to University of Warwick researcher will support the computational exploration of new chemical mechanisms and catalyst materials for sunlight-fuelled chemistry

The intricate interplay of sunlight, molecules, and metal catalyst materials that can break down greenhouse gases such as CO2 will be explored in the Department of Chemistry at the University of Warwick, by Dr Reinhard J. Maurer using computer simulations thanks to award of £1.46M by the Government’s UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship programme.

Dr Reinhard J. Maurer will explore how chemical catalyst materials, particularly metal nanoparticles, become more reactive when exposed to light, enabling them to transform some of the most stable molecules, such as CO2 and other greenhouse gases.

By exposing metal nanoparticles to light, so-called “hot electrons” are formed at the particle surfaces, which can boost the metals ability to make or break chemical bonds in molecules – this process is called hot-electron catalysis or plasmonic catalysis.

If sufficiently understood and controlled, hot-electron catalysis can provide a route for industrial catalysis to replace raw materials based on crude oil and conventional energy sources that aren’t eco-friendly with CO2, oxygen, and nitrogen from the atmosphere and renewable energy from the sunlight.

The new fellowship awarded to Dr Maurer by the UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship programme will allow him to develop a theory and simulation methodology to predict how light exposure can modify and boost catalytic reactions in metal nanoparticles. By combining efficient quantum theoretical simulation methods with machine-learning techniques, Dr. Maurer will be able to predict chemical reaction rates by varying important catalyst design parameters such as particle shape and composition.

Together with an international network of researchers, Dr. Maurer will use this simulation data to design viable hot-electron-based catalyst materials for real-world application of the technology.

Dr Reinhard J. Maurer, from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Warwick comments: “The UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship programme will allow me to bring experts with different backgrounds into my research group to develop unique simulation capabilities, to develop rational catalyst design strategies, and to guide experimental and industrial collaborators to the realisation of this technology.“

“Tackling climate change on a global scale, while maintaining and raising living standards across the globe is the true challenge of our time. 95% of all manufactured products rely on industrial chemistry, which is responsible for a significant proportion of greenhouse gas emissions and energy consumption. Innovative new catalyst materials and processes, such as hot-electron catalysis, play an important role in transforming chemical industries towards more sustainable production.”

Dr. Maurer is one of only 42 UKRI Future Leaders Fellows across the UK announced in the first round of the £900m UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship initiative. UK Research and Innovation Chief Executive, Professor Sir Mark Walport, comments:

“The Future Leaders Fellowships offer long-term support for the most talented researchers and innovators. Fellows will be encouraged to be adventurous in tackling tough and important research questions and opportunities for innovation.

“The Fellowships offer opportunities to move across disciplinary boundaries and between academia and industry. These Fellowships will enable us to grow the strong supply of talented individuals needed to ensure that UK research and innovation continues to be world leading.”

Professor Pam Thomas, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research at the University of Warwick, comments: “Dr. Maurers research brings together aspects of photophysics, catalysis, computational simulation, and artificial intelligence applications in science, working across disciplinary boundaries with experimental colleagues in 4 different countries. It complements major initiatives at Warwick (GRP Energy, GRP Materials)

“The award of the UKRI FLF for Dr.Maurer showcases that Warwick is a powerhouse for computational materials science, as also recently shown by the award of HetSys CDT, where Maurer is a member of the core supervision team.”