Photo-catalysis for greener, faster manufacturing
Young researchers are developing next-generation manufacturing processes for medicines and chemicals in an EU-funded network. Their innovative and green solutions aim to boost industrial competitiveness.
© TU Eindhoven / Bart van Overbeeke
A catalyst promotes a chemical reaction between reagents resulting in an end product. The catalyst itself remains unchanged by the reaction and can be reused. In photo-catalysis, the catalyst often a metal substrate is activated by visible light.
Photo-catalysis allows fast chemical reactions at low temperatures and pressures instead of the heat and pressures needed currently. Moreover, photo-catalysis research has shown there are new, simpler and faster ways of making complex compounds, such as medicines. Large pharmaceutical and chemical companies are very interested in the potential benefits and photo-catalysis has become a very hot area they are investigating.
The industrial potential of photo-catalysis was known several decades ago. The problem has been that while it works well in a small flask in a laboratory, it is difficult to scale up to the volumes used in industrial batch production. This is simply because the light that activates the catalyst cannot penetrate deep enough into large industrial reaction vessels.
In response, the EU-funded Photo4Future is developing approaches to move from a batch production process to a continuous flow process. The switch to a continuous flow process employs smaller photo-catalytic reactors where reactants are pumped continuously in one end and product out the other.
“In Photo4Future our researchers are investigating how to scale up this process to an industrial level,” says project coordinator Timothy Noël of Technische Universiteit Eindhoven in The Netherlands. “This involves developing new catalysts, designing new photomicroreactors, better understanding the complex photo-catalytic reaction mechanisms, and resolving scale-up issues.”
Continuous flow production
For example, in Spain the researchers are looking at making and purifying new heterogeneous catalysts. In Germany they are examining how catalysts work on a molecular level, and in Belgium how to raise the efficiency of light transmission into the photomicroreactor.
Photo4Future is very timely and relevant to industrial innovation Noël says. The pharmaceutical and specialist chemical industries want more production flexibility and smaller factories. Continuous flow and effective catalysis offers this advantage.
“It is much cheaper overall to build and operate a continuous flow factory than a traditional batch factory,” Noël explains. “And if you look at China and India which are now entering these sectors, they are looking straight away at continuous flow options. Here in Europe we need to overcome a natural resistance to change, to implementing new technologies in traditional areas.”
Bright young minds
Photo4Future received funding from the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Innovative Training Networks programme and involved 7 principle investigators from European research organisations with 10 early-stage researchers who will complete their doctoral studies as part of the project.
“Young researchers are more open to new technologies, less resistant to change and unconcerned by the ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it around here’ approach that can afflict traditional engineering industries,” Noël says.
As well as regular summer and winter seminars that bring all participants together, each early-stage researcher undertakes two secondments to partner organisations for a few months each. One of the secondments is with an industrial partner.
“The constant exchange of ideas and people across Europe is greatly appreciated by the early-stage researchers. Their environment is more exciting than in a traditional PhD,” says Noël. “Indeed much like Marie-Curie herself who worked between Paris and Warsaw.”
He adds: “We hope that our young researchers, who are less bound by established practice and have experience of innovative photo-catalytic and continuous flow technologies, will contribute to a persuasive and critical mass for industrial-level innovation and success across the European chemicals sector.”