Month: October 2020

Catalysis through the ages 2 – Sustainable energy production

In our first post, we explored what catalysts are and how they have been instrumental in human development. In our second post, we look at one application specifically, producing energy. For over 100 years catalysts have transformed how we get from A to B, and as will see, will continue to do so by giving us cleaner greener alternative fuels.

By Aditya Sengar, Research Associate in the Department of Bioengineering.

The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word crisis. One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger but recognize the opportunity.” The quote by John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, has stood the times and is quite relevant in context to the catalysis industry today. Set in motion by the two world wars, the industry paved the way for the world to transition from a coal-based economy to crude oil-based economy initially. Now the industry is trying to transition us out of the oil-based economy.

End of the coal era

The world witnessed the dangers of excessive reliance on coal at the end of the 19th century because of rising air pollution by coal burning. London recorded the highest air particulate concentration in the 1890s. The discovery of crude oil in the 1850s was considered the status quo of the future of energy during those times. Crude oil consists of long carbon-chain molecules that need to be broken down to smaller chain molecules like the petroleum products we are more familiar with: petrol, diesel and aviation fuels. Thermal cracking, an industry standard until the 1940s, required burning crude oil at high temperatures to produce the petroleum products. The process was still dirty. Catalytic cracking, developed and refined in the 1930s in the USA, produced higher-octane fuels which served an edge to the Allied forces fighter aircrafts over their German counterparts. The process soon replaced thermal cracking in crude oil refineries. Modern day catalytic cracking involves catalyst in powder form with molecular cage-like structures at nanoscales that hold longer-chain crude oil and provide ion-exchange reactions for an easy breakdown to petroleum products.

Nelson’s Column during the Great Smog of 1952. A period of unusually cold weather, combined with an anticyclone and windless conditions, collected airborne pollutants – mostly arising from the use of coal – to form a thick layer of smog over the city.

1970s energy crisis

In the 1970s, another energy crisis hit the western world. With oil supply saturating in Germany, USA and Venezuela, crude oil price rises rose and led to a decade long economic. The crisis also gave wind to the public’s views on the environmental effects of using coal and crude oil on the planet. ­The catalyst industry stood up to the task and developed processes for cleaner production of energy using coal, natural gas and oil or sometimes even replacing them.

Clean energy from coal

After the first world war, Germany was producing 14% of its energy supply by synthetic liquid fuel. Liquid fuel has its advantages over coal for being much easier to transport. This is the time before crude oil became the go-to energy resource. The process developed by German chemists Fischer and Tropsch was slowly faded into obscurity because of discovery of vast crude oil reserves across the world making oil a cheap commodity. The 1970s energy crisis made global powers, that were heavily reliant on coal, realize the commercial opportunity provided by the Fischer-Tropsch (FT) process. South Africa now produces 30% of its transport fuel using FT synthesis. The process works with molecular catalysts, called zeolites, with cage-like molecular structures to trap gases like, carbon monoxide and hydrogen[1], and make them react in a series of reactions to produce petroleum products. Modern-day research focuses heavily on reducing carbon dioxide, generated as a by-product of the process, via another catalytic method known as carbon capture and storage.

Biofuels and the struggle to replace crude oil

Biofuels are the alternative to crude oil derived diesel fuels and are produced by a catalytic process where vegetable oils from certain crops, like rapeseed and soybean, react with simple alcohols to form longer carbon chain molecules, the biodiesel. This is not a well-known fact, but the inception of a sustainable energy economy was actually kicked-off by biofuels. It was Nicolaus Otto, the father of the modern internal combustion engine, who first demonstrated an engine running on peanut oil as early as in 1900. Again, huge discoveries of crude oil reserves in the next few decades killed the interest in biofuels. Thanks to the 1970s energy crisis, the industry has since re-emerged and looks stronger than ever now. Although the calorific value (energy in kWh produced per kg of substance) of biodiesel is still 10-20% less than traditional diesel, the cost of production per unit of energy generated is similar. Production of biodiesel still has secondary effects like greenhouse gas emissions by excessive farming and increase in cost of the crops used as feedstock for the biodiesel production. The Paris Agreement of 2016 makes it binding for the signatories to produce 10-15% of their energy requirements by biofuels in the coming decade which is not a very ambitious mission provided the stage the technology is in right now.

Efficient production of electricity from natural gas

Toyota’s hydrogen fuel cell powered car at showcase in Megaweb Toyota City, a car theme park in Tokyo.

Two-thirds of the world’s electricity demand is fulfilled by fossil fuels of which majority is produced inefficiently by coal and natural gas. Furthermore, present-day gridlines to supply electricity to our homes and industries result in heavy energy loss. This results in overall low efficiency (about 33%) of converting primary energy source to usable energy. Enter fuel cells. A fuel cell generates current from a chemical reaction between hydrogen and oxygen over platinum catalyst with 60% efficiency. The oxygen comes from the air. Hydrogen production still requires natural gas (via a process called steam reforming). The produced hydrogen is suitably compressed, stored in a tank, and is replenished at a filling station, like petrol. Over the past 15 years, fuel cell cost has been brought down by 5 times to about $50/kWh (current costs of conventional internal combustion engines are about $30/kW for light-duty vehicles). A major cost of developing a fuel cell goes in the platinum catalyst used as electrode in the cell. Hyundai and Toyota, major automobile companies, are spearheading this initiative to have 31 hydrogen fuel cell powered car models on the road by 2025.

In the final part of this blog series, we will see exciting challenges faced by the catalyst industry and get a glimpse at a possible fossil-free carbon neutral world.

[1] The reactants are more commonly known as syngas, a product of coal gasification. Gasification is a process of reacting coal with a controlled amount of oxygen at high temperatures.

Catalysis through the ages 1 – Birth of an industry

In our second series of blogs we look at catalysis, a process critical in everything from digesting your food, to plastic production and making beer! Published weekly in 3 instalments, we will explain how catalysts could drive the clean energy revolution and much more.

In our first post, we explore what catalysts are and how they have been instrumental in human development; from world wars to pushing the frontiers of medicine.

By Aditya Sengar, Research Associate in the Department of Bioengineering.

Soma, the Elixir of Life, Chi, Manna, Prana, the Philosopher’s Stone, Shewbread and King Solomon’s gold. These are the many names alchemists of the past gave to a mysterious material with magical properties. Fans of Harry Potter and the Fullmetal Alchemist series would be familiar with the name of Nicolas Flamel, the French alchemist who was widely believed to have discovered the philosopher’s stone and achieved immortality. Had Flamel been born half a millennia later, he would have been surprised to witness the common use of the mystical arts in the everyday use of the common man. Yes, it is true. We have the Philosopher’s stone and it has been public knowledge for a long time. I will help you out if the title was not a giveaway. The magic is not in any material. It is in the process. I am talking about the science of catalysis. If you bear with me a bit longer, maybe by the end of my story, you will agree with me.

What is catalysis?

Catalysis helps a chemical reaction occur faster without participating itself in the reaction. Consider the biochemical reactions in the human body. The important metabolic reactions all require certain enzymes, the biological catalysts. Without enzymes, breaking down food and generating energy from it would take about 2 billion years. Yes, you read that right. What your body does in a matter of minutes and hours could take a very long time if not for catalysis. Am I getting your attention now? I hope so.

Dawn of industrial catalysis

The process of fermentation has been used for centuries to produce beer and other alcoholic drinks. In beer, enzymes in yeast catalyse the breakdown of sugar molecules in grain into ethanol.

Historical use of catalysts in one form or the other to produce wine, beer, soap, cheese, among many others was common. Let me ask you a question here. Can you guess the most important medicinal drug in human history? Not Penicillin, not insulin; but ether. Valerius Cordus in 1552 used sulphuric acid as a catalyst to produce ether that revolutionised medicinal world. Originally used to treat bacterial and viral infections, by the early 19th century ether started being used as the default general anaesthetic sometimes replacing practices like “hypnosis”. These times also saw the development of catalysis from empirics to science. In 1835, the term catalyst was first coined. The remaining part of the 19th century saw the exploitation of scientific knowledge for industrial applications and financial gain. An important event that sparked an interest in industrial catalysis was the dawn of the world wars.

Enter the world wars

Fritz Haber, a German chemist, in 1909 showed that ammonia could be produced by air using a metal catalyst. It allowed the mass production of fertilisers throughout the western world. Interestingly, the process is not primarily remembered for its ability to tackle world hunger. During the first world war, Allied Forces blocked the export of Chilean saltpetre to Germany. The mineral was used to prepare explosives until that time. Germany quickly started to produce ammonia via the Haber process on a mass scale, providing it fuel for their explosives.

The discovery of polyethylene (or polyethene) was another major event which was both an accident and a top-secret British government project. Scientists at Imperial Chemical Industries, ICI, accidentally produced a white and waxy substance in a series of high-pressure experiments in 1933. Soon large plants were set up to manufacture the waxy substance, named polyethylene, to be used as an insulating material for radar cables during the second world war with the process itself being a closely guarded secret. It wasn’t until in the 1950s that Zieglar and Natta developed a catalytic process to produce polyethylene at low pressure and temperature (the process was later reformed by Phillips Oil Company with the Philips catalyst) leading to an expansive growth in the plastic industry. The global polyethylene market is currently valued at $180 billion.

Thanks to catalytic processes, British fighter planes (Spitfire shown above) had higher octane rating than German fighter planes, giving Britain a considerable advantage in the Battle of Britain.

From alchemy to catalysis

The western world never accepted alchemy as a modern science and shunned the practitioners as occult scientists. Even Isaac Newton, one of the most influential scientists, practiced alchemy in secret. Before his time though, the differences between the two sciences were not as great. Abū Bakr (854–925 CE), a Persian scholar, was a pioneer alchemist and physician of his time. He was the discoverer of sulphuric acid, and his alchemical work is said to have laid the foundations of modern-day chemotherapy for cancer treatment. Alchemy, the theory of transmutation of one substance to another has come alive in the way of modern-day catalysis.

In the next couple of blogs, we will discover how catalysis has transformed and continues to transform the world of energy around us.

Fast fashion 4 – How much are you willing to change?

Over the past 3 blog posts we have seen how the fashion industry needs to urgently change, and how it is showing promising signs that it is, albeit slowly, starting to become more sustainable. In our final instalment however, we ask how much are we, the public, willing to change our own lifestyle to help?

By Nadin Moustafa, PhD student in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

Many brands are working towards increasing sustainability in their supply chain by using sustainable cotton and/or fabric initiatives to reduce water, energy and chemical use. Some brands are implementing new dyeing technologies to reduce water consumption as well as other energy and chemical saving schemes throughout their supply chain. Such work has decreased carbon and water footprints of clothing in the UK by 8% and 7%, respectively since 2012 (WRAP, 2017).

Figure 1: Fast Fashion in the UK (IBISWorld, 2018)

Consumers’ perspective

Thus, the industry seems to be working towards decreasing their environmental impact. However, from our perspective, consumption in the UK increased by 10% since 2012 (WRAP, 2017).  And not only are we buying more clothes – we are also discarding our clothes a lot quicker. A survey done by Drapers also showed that although consumers are more aware of the problem, we are not necessarily willing to pay extra for sustainable products (Drapers, 2019). Our behavior is actually more selfish than we’d like to think. Rational models of consumption assume that individuals make choices by balancing costs and benefits. Hence, ideally, an ethical consumer would consider the best outcome of costs and benefits for them AND the environment. However, real consumption and especially fashion consumption is not ideal. In fact, it is quite irrational. We tend to buy clothes for many reasons such as pleasure and excitement, setting status and sometimes just because it is too cheap not to!

It can be assumed that consumers would take decisions to decrease their environmental impact if they are more aware of the devastating environmental effects. However, research shows that this is not necessarily true. In fact, being bombarded with more information tends to reduce the influence of ethical issues due to the complexity of information faced by the consumer (Kaplan, 2000). The amount of different information coming from different sources makes it easier for a consumer to dismiss the issue and buy that awesome shirt on sale.

An alternative approach is to recognize that fast fashion is desirable and hence, develop and innovate methods that would enable the industry to decrease its environmental impact economically whilst maintaining fast fashion to the consumer.

Figure 2: Fixing Fashion (Backstage tales, 2017)

What can you do to help?

A very important question that may have crossed your mind then is: what can I, as a consumer do to help towards this problem? Here are some of many suggestions!

  • Choose fibers with low water consumption such as linen or recycled fibers since
    • 5 trillion liters of water is used by the fashion industry ever year, while 750 million people in the world do not have access to water.
  • Choose natural or semi-synthetic fibers. Wash clothes only when you need to and at a lower temperature.
    • 190,000 tons of textile microplastic fibers go into the ocean every year.
  • Buy less, invest in better quality and recycle
    • The equivalent of 1 garbage truck of clothes is dumped into a landfill every second.
    • 10% of global emissions comes from the fashion industry
    • 400% more carbon emissions are produced if we wear a garment 5 times instead of 50 times.
  • Choose organic fibers, support sustainable brands.
    • 23% of all chemicals produced worldwide is used in the fashion industry!!!!
    • 20,000 people die of cancer and miscarriages every year as a result of chemicals sprayed on cotton
    • Cotton production uses 24% and 44% of insecticides and pesticides produced globally.


WRAP, 2017. Valing Our Clothes: the cocst of UK fashion. [Online]
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Drapers, 2019. Drapers research: how sustainable is the fashion industry. [Online]
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Kaplan, S., 2000. Human Nature and Environmentally Responsible Behaviour. Journal of Social Issues, 56(3), pp. 491-508.

Backstage tales, 2017. Why fast fashion needs to change. [Online]
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IBISWorld, 2018. Thoughtful Threads: Ethical Consumerism and Fashion. [Online]
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Fast fashion 3 – So what is the industry doing about it?

So far in our journey, we’ve been finding out how the fashion industry needs to urgently change given how serious an impact it is having on our planet. This time we delve into current attempts by the industry to change its way.

By Nadin Moustafa, PhD student in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

It is apparent that fast fashion is extremely harmful to the environment. As with many other global issues, it became one of the industries where public awareness is increasing. However fast fashion, like recycling and avoiding plastic, is a cause that individuals can contribute to directly. Contrary to industries where the ethical decisions are a bit harder to take such as traveling via airplanes. Or ones we might not be able to necessarily contribute to individually, such as the environmental impact from non-renewables.

H&M’s Conscious products explainer:

Since the fashion industry has gained attention in that aspect, many brands and retailers are starting to take actions towards sustainability. A survey was done by drapers and got more than 370 responses ranging from small brands, retailers, manufacturers and suppliers. There were quite interesting finds. 91.6% agreed that their customers are becoming more aware of environmental issues. 42.6% of the fashion brands and retailers said that they have a sustainable range. So why aren’t the fashion brands going completely sustainable if that’s what their consumers want? The biggest barrier, as you would probably guess, is cost. 60.3% of the respondents to the survey said that sustainability increases costs. In addition, consumers are not predominantly willing to pay more for sustainable fashion. Finally, some brands lack the required bustiness skills to incorporate sustainability into their supply chain (Drapers, 2019). So, what are brands currently doing in terms of sustainability?

Brands working towards sustainability in fashion

Sustainable efforts are continuously announced by brands. Several brands announce their targets towards decreasing their environmental impact. For example, Zalando partnered with Global Fashion Agenda, a leadership forum for industry collaboration on fashion sustainability. And Walope which includes luxury brands such as Harrods, Burberry and Dunhill, launched their first phase of their sustainability manifesto in 2019.

Some brands would focus on fabric innovation such as Stella McCartney where they replaced their synthetic and petrol-based elastomers with a new engineered component that is safe and toxic-free to the environment (Fashion United, 2020). Another aspect to focus on would be working towards a circular economy, ASOS partnered up with the London College of Fashion to pilot a training program on circular fashion. The learning outcomes will be implemented into their design team. Whereas, GAP Inc. and Nike will both incorporate sustainability and/or circular design training to their teams by 2020.

Industry’s intentions towards sustainability

It is relatively obvious that many brands are publicizing their intentions towards increasing sustainability in their supply chain. However, this ‘push’ can also be focused on marketing rather than protecting our environment. For example, H&M has a Conscious collection that is more ‘sustainable’ than other products they sell. The conscious collection marketing focuses on nature and uses the color green as well  as soft autumn colors. However, detailed information is not given, in fact their website explains their conscious collection in less than five lines. It does not actually include sufficient information such as how the products are produced, recycled or their carbon footprint relative to other products they sell.

Polo Ralph Lauren released the Earth Polo which is made of recycled water bottles and uses dyes that don’t require water in the application process.
Houdini, a Swedish brand, makes sportswear that are compostable and can be used as fertilizers.












AlgiKnit creates clothes out of renewable biopolymers.
Verloop uses fabric scraps and excess materials to make accessories.











Therefore, this begs us to question whether brands such as H&M are actually working towards sustainability in the industry. Considering the significant amount of clothing produced by the fashion industry and our growing and constant demand, means that it would take H&M approximately 12 years to recycle what they produce in one day (Medium, 2019).  Hence, brands can be promoting sustainability to maximize profits without actually decreasing their environmental impact. This is backed by research where a review of consumer sales between 2013 and 2018 shows that products highlighted as ‘sustainable’ would sell much faster than products that were not (Kronthal-Sacco & Whelan, 2019).

Sustainability needs all of us!

Brands, manufacturers, retailers and suppliers must take responsibility for the clothes they produce. However, as with everything everyone needs to help and have their input. Governments should also support and enforce change. And we as consumers should be willing to buy more sustainable clothing. This may be more expensive, but also hopefully we should be aiming for less garments per year and increasing the lifespan of clothes we already have. Finally, inventive and creative models, techniques and innovations are required if we are to maintain fast fashion in our perspective whilst decreasing its significant environmental impact.


Fashion United, 2020. 20 Sustainability efforts of the fashion industry in January 2020. [Online]
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Medium, 2019. ‘Sustainable Style’: The Truth Behind The Marketing of H&M’s Conscious Collection. [Online]
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Kronthal-Sacco, R. & Whelan, T., 2019. Sustainable Share Index: Research on IRI Purchasing Data. [Online]
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