About the project
Among various approaches, molecular catalysis best combines efficiency and selectivity with catalyst simplicity and robustness: it is more efficient and selective than heterogeneous catalysis (e.g. via bulk metals or metal oxides), while being simpler to develop and more robust for large scale industrial applications than the enzymatic approach used in biotechnologies. Selectivity is an issue of growing concern in terms of atom economy and waste reduction, quantified by the E-factor and the ecoscale score. Homogeneously catalysed processes such as hydroformylation, carbonylation, ethylene oligomerisation and polymerisation, oxidation, hydrogenation, metathesis, and hydrocyanation, which mostly use molecular catalysts based on transition-metal coordination compounds, already contribute substantially to the inventory of bulk chemicals on the million-ton scale, and homogeneous processes are even more important in the fine chemical industry.
The goals of “green chemistry”, as a synonym of environmentally benign and of fundamental importance in sustainable development, can be achieved more effectively through homogeneous catalysis. Another issue of growing relevance is the transition from fossil feedstock to renewable feedstocks for both energy and consumer products in the so-called “biorefineries”. Although the ultimate solution of the energy problem will probably involve direct solar energy conversion, the transition of consumer products from petroleum-based to biomass-based is an industrial reality that depends to a large extent on homogeneous catalysis. Another clear advantage of molecular catalysis is the deep mechanistic understanding that is accessed through the tools of molecular chemistry (structural and spectroscopic investigations, kinetics, ligand engineering, etc.), which allows catalyst tailoring by rational design, of which this consortium has World-leading expertise. A major challenge of homogeneous catalysis is solving the problems of catalyst recovery, scale-up, catalyst stability and recycling whilst simultaneously eliminating product contamination by what are often toxic metals.
Fundamental research in coordination chemistry is of crucial importance for the development of innovative catalysis. Recent examples are the serendipitous discovery of stable N-heterocyclic carbenes (NHCs) in 1991, leading to rapid transfer of NHC-based homogeneous catalysts from laboratory curiosity to industrial working horses, and the implementation of metallocene-catalyzed olefin polymerization over 30 years after the first report of the metallocenes. Similarly, the commercialisation of the first selective ethylene trimerisation technology took over 30 years, having been discovered in 1967 and the first plant was constructed in 2003, whereas the first ethylene tetramerisation catalyst discovered in 2004 was commercialised by 2013. These examples serve to highlight that industry is now very reactive as the time lag between fundamental discovery and industrial implementation keeps shortening to maintain economic viability. This EJD focuses on providing the skills needed for the future implementation of innovative catalysis through today’s cutting-edge fundamental exploration of coordination chemistry, which is guided by industrial interests and target applications. The fact that several chemical companies implementing molecular catalytic technology actively participate in this EJD attests to the importance that the private sector gives to this topic
Main objectives of the project
- Design innovative ligands
- Develop new pre-catalysts with the new ligands or by new immobilization strategies
- Investigate new bond activation modes and elucidate mechanistic details
- Implement innovative molecular catalytic processes
- Provide a solid background in coordination chemistry and molecular catalysts through a well-balanced programme of courses and tutorials
- Provide a wide panel of soft skills including on chemical risks, scientific misconduct, Intellectual Property Rights, ethics etc.
- Expose the ESRs to the wide intersectorial activities and international network of the participating groups
- Develop the ESRs sense of communication through scientific writing, presentations and outreach activities