Matthew Davidson, professor of sustainable chemical technologies, talks to Sarah Houlton about the University of Bath's new Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies
Matthew Davidson, professor of sustainable chemical technologies, talks to Sarah Houlton about the University of Bath’s new Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies.
Matthew Davidson’s career in chemistry has led him towards sustainability, and in particular creating new, cleaner catalysts. ’The idea is to make catalysts out of benign metals rather than toxic ones,’ the University of Bath professor says. ’Titanium is a good example - it’s in common products from Smarties to suncream - and we are developing catalysts that can be used to make biodegradable polymers, such as polylactic acid, and biofuels. We’ve spent a century developing a petrochemicals industry and learning how catalysis with hydrocarbons works - now we need to understand how to do catalysis on the oxygenated molecules that are found in biomass.’
If truly sustainable chemistry is to become a reality, it needs to be addressed from all directions, and in 2008 the university established a Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT). This joint initiative of the departments of chemistry and chemical engineering was conceived and driven forward by Davidson, and he is now its director. This critical mass of sustainable technologies that has been created at Bath is already having an impact - not least that Bath engineering alumnus Roger Whorrod has made a ?1 million donation to the university to support the CSCT’s work. This has endowed Davidson’s chair - he is now the Whorrod professor of sustainable chemical technologies - and will pay for four 5 year research fellowships, two of which are currently being recruited.
Doctoral Training Centre
Recognition of the future importance of sustainable chemistry came last year, when the CSCT was awarded ?7.5 million from the EPSRC to set up a Doctoral Training Centre. One of 44 such centres around the country, the overarching idea behind the programme is to provide students with a broader cross-discipline education focused on some of the most important issues facing the UK. Sustainable chemistry falls squarely in this area.
’As well as doing high-quality research, the students’ training is enhanced to make them more attractive to UK PLC,’ Davidson says. ’It provides a critical mass, and a cohort of students that are trained in that specific area.’ The interdisciplinary nature is critical. ’We are working on sustainable technologies at the interface between chemistry and chemical engineering. That requires giving chemical engineers more training in chemistry - and chemists training in process and chemical engineering.’
At Bath, although some lectures are involved, the training predominantly uses electronic-based interactive methods, so the students learn about sustainable development with tutors on a web-based course, seeing the tutors in person now and again. They also have week-long short, intensive courses, with the assessment more varied than simply taking exams. ’We try to make it clear it’s not like a taught MSc or an extension of an undergraduate course, it’s a PhD by research, with training on the side,’ he explains. ’The training element is spread out, and here it’s arranged as a 4 year "integrated" PhD which incorporates an MRes in year one, but the research projects the students carry out in the first year are a big component. They get to try out a few different areas, and one of these projects will likely lead on to the full PhD project.’
More than 20 academics across the two departments are involved in training and research supervision, and external partners are key to the programme. ’We have a dozen industrial partners, plus international university partners in the US and Germany. All the students will have an external partner, probably from industry, and also a 3 month internship, which might be at one of the partners, but could be a project in the developing world, working with one of our stakeholders like a Knowledge Transfer Network, or in the area of public engagement.’
The 14 students making up the first cohort are now finishing their first year, with the second group about to start. Davidson is clear about the importance of this type of programme, and while the funding for the DTC is only for five cohorts in the first instance, he’s very keen to find ways to continue it. ’The point is to train people in areas that have a societal impact,’ he says. ’Industry is crying out for people at this interface between chemistry and chemical engineering, and for people who understand the concept of sustainability. We’re training students to be more employable, while at the same time doing research in areas of sustainable chemistry that will be important in the future.’
Sarah Houlton is a freelance writer based in London, UK