Catalytic routes to transform organic waste to valuable chemicals

Lead supervisor: Dr James McGregor, Chemical and Biological Engineering
Co-supervisor(s):Dr Marco Conte, ChemistryDr Nick Taylor-Buck, Urban Institute

Deadline: Thursday 23 February 2017

Applications for this project have now closed.

Project description

This industrially-supported experimental PhD project will develop alternative sources of chemical products using organic waste as a feedstock. A key focus will be on developing heterogeneous catalytic routes to upgrading organic oils produced via insect biocatalysis of food waste. Development of both engineering processes and catalysts is key to the success of this project, with experiments designed to take full account of societal concerns. Target product species include, e.g. green solvents and liquid fuels formed via catalytic esterification, alongside high value oil derivatives. The development of such a circular economy approach is key to tackling the grand challenges of the 21st century including climate change, urbanisation and resource depletion. This is a genuinely innovative project suitable for a motivated chemical engineer / chemist or graduate in a related subject.

Global society is dependent on fossil reserves for products ranging from fuels and solvents to plastics and petrochemicals. This project will develop a novel route to synthesise such products employing organic waste as the feedstock. In the UK 15Mt of organic waste is disposed to landfill every year, while in developing economies organic waste constitutes >60% of all municipal solid waste. The industrial partner (Entomics) has developed a platform to transform organic waste via insect biocatalysis, i.e. black soldier fly larvae (BSFL). BSFL feed on organic waste, from food waste to manure, with up to 30% of their final mass comprising organic oils. This oil is a potential feedstock for the synthesis of fuels and valuable chemicals. The project will focus on developing catalytic routes to the valorisation of these oils. Both the manufacture of bulk chemicals such as solvents and liquid fuels and the synthesis of high-value oil derivatives will be investigated.

The project is largely lab based employing reaction studies and characterisation techniques such as GC/MS and FTIR. Additionally, visits to the industrial partner will form a key component of the project. Ultimately, for the technology to be successfully implemented full consideration must be given to societal concerns including: planning and environmental contexts; legal obligations; social acceptance; and fit with existing waste management contracts. The student will collaborate with experts in this area to ensure careful design of appropriate chemical experiments.

Keywords: catalysis, catalysts, sustainability, waste utilisation, circular economy

Subject areas: Chemical Engineering, Physical Chemistry, Organic Chemistry, Materials Science, Energy, Biotechnology, Petrochemical Engineering

Funding notes

This four-year studentship will be fully funded at Home/EU or international rates. Support for travel and consumables (RTSG) will also be made available at standard rate of £2,627 per annum, with an additional one-off allowance of £1,000 for a computer in the first year.  Students will receive an annual stipend of £17,336.