Public Release: 

Scientists awarded £1M to develop the catalysts of the future

University of Bath

A University of Bath chemist has received £1M to develop cheaper and more environmentally friendly catalysts with potential applications in pharmaceuticals, agriculture, food additives and plastics.

Dr Ruth Webster from the Department of Chemistry will lead the five-year project, funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Using catalysts to enable, speed up or make chemical reactions more efficient is essential to our modern economy - it is estimated that 35% of the world's Gross Domestic Product (GDP) relies on catalysis in some way.

However many catalysts need expensive, rare or environmentally damaging materials to work, including platinum, rhodium and palladium. Dr Webster's team will investigate using iron, which is the fourth most abundant element on Earth, and comparatively cheap, to create new methods of catalysis.

They believe iron holds unfulfilled potential as a catalyst and will test new ideas to use iron catalysts and phosphorus to produce molecules called phosphines, which are crucial for manufacturing pharmaceuticals and agrochemicals such as fertilisers. They are also used in some food additives, plastics and flame retardants. Existing methods to produce phosphines are outdated, some not having changed since the 1800s, and are therefore limited and wasteful.

By using iron as the basis of new catalysts then sustainability is built in from the start. Dr Webster said: "Phosphines play a vital role in modern industrial processes, but we need new ways to make them. The only way to do this is to understand fundamental bond breaking and bond making processes and what better way to do this than through iron, which we have already shown has the potential to undertake unique phosphorus bond transformations.

"We're grateful to EPSRC for funding this project."

The researchers from the University of Bath will be working with colleagues at the University of Bristol and the University of Rochester, New York, which begins in September.


For further information, please contact Chris Melvin in the University of Bath Press Office on 44-0-1225-383-941 or


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Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

As the main funding agency for engineering and physical sciences research, our vision is for the UK to be the best place in the world to Research, Discover and Innovate. By investing £800 million a year in research and postgraduate training, we are building the knowledge and skills base needed to address the scientific and technological challenges facing the nation. Our portfolio covers a vast range of fields from healthcare technologies to structural engineering, manufacturing to mathematics, advanced materials to chemistry. The research we fund has impact across all sectors. It provides a platform for future economic development in the UK and improvements for everyone's health, lifestyle and culture. We work collectively with our partners and other Research Councils on issues of common concern via Research Councils UK.

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