STFC’s laser scientists win prestigious new prize for sustainable catalysis research
08 Jun 2021



The Royal Society of Chemistry has recognised scientists at the UK's Central Laser Facility (CLF) who worked with the University of York and Syngenta Crop Protection to develop a technique giving unprecedented insights into how catalysts work.  


​​​The team in the Ultra Lab during the experiment.


The CLF team enabled the researchers to observe the structural dynamics of small quantities of precious samples with unprecedented detail, much like a slow motion movie of a chemical reaction.

The collaboration has been named the winner of the Royal Society of Chemistry's new Organic Division Horizon Prize: The Perkin Prize in Physical Organic Chemistry for creating a process that could make thousands of products more sustainable.

The study, using the Ultra laser system at the Science and Technology Facilities Council's CLF, focused on developing catalysts that use abundant metals rather than rare metals.

Many catalysts require very rare metals at their cores to function. The objective for this research was to find catalysts that work effectively using metals that are abundant on Earth and thereby make sourcing easier and cheaper to manufacture.

The team's unique approach using methods that include infrared and nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy, reveals how rare metal catalysts operate, with the goal of replicating their effectiveness using more abundantly available and sustainable materials.  

CLF's Ultra laser system played a large role in this innovative research using a unique capability called Time Resolved Multiple Probe Spectroscopy (TRMPS), which reveals details of the chemical reaction set off by the catalyst.

CLF, based at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, is the only facility in the UK with active TRMPS capabilities.

Using this technology, the team was able to follow the chemical catalysis reactions necessary for creating more sustainable agrichemical, plastic and pharmaceutical products in a way never seen before.


Professor Ian Fairlamb of the University of York, investigator for the project, said:

“Chemical catalysts are crucial in the preparation of many high value and societally important products, from agrichemicals to plastics and pharmaceuticals. Many products made by the chemical industry rely on catalysts – a manufacturing sector worth £18 billion.

“However, a significant number of these processes rely on the use of rare or precious metals, which are expensive to source, but offer significant benefits, such as accelerating manufacturing time, lowering energy demand requirements and often higher selectivity."

“Using spectroscopic techniques and the facilities at the Central Laser Facility, we could potentially unlock a whole range of different reactions that have industrial applicability – for example a substrate that will form a herbicidal product, or an intermediate to an anti-cancer compound or an anti-malarial compound."


Professor Mike Towrie, Head of the CLF's Ultra Facility said:

“The collaboration with York and Syngenta has been exciting. The team in Ultra are delighted to have contributed to this important work where our unique TRMPS facilities have provided this new way of looking at catalytic chemistry."       ​

The Royal Society of Chemistry's Horizon Prizes celebrate the most exciting, contemporary chemical science at the cutting edge of research and innovation. These prizes are for teams or collaborations who are opening up new directions and possibilities in their field, through ground-breaking scientific developments.

Contact: Towrie, Helen (STFC,RAL,CLF)