Horizon Prize win for developing greener route to Nylon production

Cardiff researchers have been named winners of a prestigious prize which celebrates discoveries and innovations that push the boundaries of science.

The team from the Cardiff Catalysis Institute were awarded the Royal Society of Chemistry’s (RSC) Environment, Sustainability and Energy Horizon Prize for developing a greener route to Nylon production.

Their research has, for the first time, successfully decoupled industrial hydrogen peroxide production from the manufacture of a major commodity chemical.

The new process represents a significant step towards achieving the net-zero ambitions of the chemical sector, says the team - a collaboration between Cardiff University, UBE Corporation, and Shanghai Jiao Tong University, with contributions from the Research Complex at Harwell, the University of Bath and Lehigh University.

Dr Richard Lewis, the project’s lead researcher at Cardiff University’s School of Chemistry, said: "We’re thrilled our work has been recognised by the RSC Environment, Sustainability and Energy Prize Committee, which seeks to bring about a sea-change in industrial oxidation chemistry.

Every year, nearly 2.5 million tons of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is used to upgrade the raw materials used in chemical manufacturing.

A long-standing goal of scientists has been to replace preformed H2O2 with that generated in-situ for chemical synthesis. But a combination of catalyst deactivation, poor selectivity and low yields, has prevented the adoption of such approaches.

The team’s research offers a breakthrough by producing a crucial intermediate substance in the creation of Nylon. They have developed a series of catalysts, a substance that changes the rate of a chemical reaction, based around gold-palladium nanoparticles immobilised onto a TS-1 carrier, that can both generate and efficiently utilise H2O2 in-situ.

Professor Graham Hutchings, Regius Professor of Chemistry at Cardiff University, added: "We’re extremely grateful to the RSC Prize Committee for their recognition.

"The generation of H2O2 through this new approach could be used in a wide range of other industrial applications that are currently dependent on the use of TS-1 and H2O2 and is a clear demonstration that through academic and industrial collaboration, significant improvements in current state-of-the-art technologies can be made."

The new process bridges the gap between the highly different conditions required for the individual reactions and achieves close to 100% yield - meaning almost all the starting materials turn into the desired product - with minimal waste.

The adoption of this technology paves the way for cleaner, more efficient chemical production by generating H2O2 where it is needed. And, existing infrastructure can likely be adapted to use the technology, lowering the barrier to industrial adoption.

The Horizon Prizes highlight exciting, contemporary chemical science at the cutting edge of research and innovation. These prizes are for groups, teams and collaborations of any form or size who are opening up new directions and possibilities in their field, through groundbreaking scientific developments.