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How can molecular science help to understand mental health?

by Naveesha Karunanayaka

Mental health is our psychological, emotional, and social wellbeing; combined, these help us cope with life’s difficulties. Yet a worryingly substantial proportion of the population will suffer from poor mental health at some point in their lives. This series of blogs will explore how molecular science can contribute to a better understanding of mental health conditions, and to the development of new types of treatment.

According to NHS England, each year 1 in 4 people in the country suffer from poor mental health, and this figure is expected to rise – particularly due to the impact of the global pandemic. But in comparison to our physical wellbeing, our mental health can often be overlooked and neglected. The inability, or lack of motivation, to identify issues with our mental health means that they often go unacknowledged and untreated. Globally, more than 70% of people with mental health illnesses don’t receive treatment. This leads to severe consequences, such as self-harm and suicide. Men aged 40-49 have been found to be particularly vulnerable, having the highest suicide rates in the UK, according to the Office for National Statistics. What causes these issues, and why are some people affected more than others?

The molecular science of mental health

The exact influence that different factors have on mental health have yet to be clearly understood. These include genetic influences and trauma. In particular, stress, and the ability to respond to it, has a significant impact on mental health. Neo-natal experiences in rats effect their long-term cognitive emotional response, suggesting that stress response is highly dependent on the individual and their background.

More often than not, ill health is caused by a combination of different effects.  Separating out the influence of different factors is challenging.


Currently the main method of diagnosis is via a healthcare professional’s observations and judgement. However, this is not a particularly accurate or precise method. Self-reporting by the patient is subject to recall and often provides only a snapshot of the problems. Another key issue in diagnosing these conditions is the lack of biomarkers presented. Biomarkers are biological molecules found in the blood or other bodily fluids. Analysis of biomarker molecules provides information that can aid diagnosis of diseases. If biomarkers could be identified that are linked to particular signs or characteristics of mental health issues, these would be identifiable in every patient and a consistent system of diagnosis could be developed. Universal tests or observations that indicate mental health problems could be created that would produce conclusive and accurate confirmation of a mental illness. This would increase accuracy of diagnosis as there would be a definite outcome to look for to diagnose a patient. But – so far – the lack of biomarkers associated with mental health conditions has prevented this method of diagnosis.

Genetics – the analysis of DNA to understand heredity of certain traits – may provide valuable insight. Various techniques are used to either isolate, grow or analyse genes of interest, however, it is difficult to apply this to psychiatric disorders. This is partly because the genetic locations associated with particular psychiatric disorders are usually unknown. In these cases, what’s known as linkage analysis can prove useful – the functionality of genes is observed in relation to their location on a chromosome. Genes that are physically close on a chromosome remain close during cell division, indicating that a certain psychiatric disorder could be passed down through the generations. Other investigative techniques under development will be discussed later in this blog series, including association studies, artificial intelligence and machine learning.

Using molecular science to develop effective treatments

A non-pharmaceutical intervention that has proven effective is psychotherapy, also known as speech therapy. However, most interventions involve drugs to medicate the patient. Medication is usually given using a trial-and-error system that may result in the patient getting worse before they get better.  Available pharmaceutical treatment methods can be unreliable and often have side effects.

Gene therapy, which works by altering, replacing or inactivating genes that cause illnesses, is a viable option currently being explored.  However, it is an invasive and expensive technique, and is not yet approved for psychiatric conditions. In addition, there are currently some discussions around the ethics of this therapy.

two human head silhouettes in different colours
Factors in Mental Health (Manhattan Medical Arts, 2019)

Other options for both diagnosis and treatment are active areas of research. These include the use of virtual reality (VR), artificial intelligence (AI) and even smartphones. Smart apps allow users to document daily life. These apps could also utilise facial recognition to detect slight changes in appearances, which can indicate mental health issues in conjunction with other symptoms. Wearable devices that contain sensors can record information about activity, and in future could measure the chemistry of skin, sweat or blood to monitor key biomarkers and provide deeper insight into the patient’s health. Clinical trials are investigating the efficacy of using the data provided by such devices, combined with other clinical information, to detect early changes in depression, schizophrenia, and posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  We will delve into these technological developments in later blogs.


The stigma around mental health is gradually being alleviated as society opens up about the reality of the issues we are facing. With new technologies constantly emerging and increased focus on good mental health, there is hope that reliable systems for quantitative diagnosis and treatment of psychiatric disorders will be developed soon.

The following blogs will explore the molecular science of depression, anxiety and schizophrenia, and possible treatments.


Further Reading

Chakraborty, P.K., Vargehese, T. and Narayana, P.L. (2017). Molecular Genetics in Mental illness. Medical Journal Armed forces India. 50(3):211-214.

Department of Health and Social Care (2011), No Health Without Mental Health: a cross-government outcomes strategy.

Guk, K., Han, G., Lim, J., Jeong, K., Kang, T., Lim, E. K., & Jung, J. (2019). Evolution of Wearable Devices with Real-Time Disease Monitoring for Personalized Healthcare. Nanomaterials (Basel, Switzerland)9(6), 813.

Henderson, C., Evans-Lacko, S. and Thornicroft, G. (2013). Mental illness stigma, help seeking, and public health programs. American journal of public health103(5): 777–780.

Hirschtritt, M.E. and Insel, T.R. (2018). Digital technologies in Psychiatry: Present and Future. The Journal of lifelong learning in psychiatry. 16(3): 251-258.

Korf, B.R. and Liu, N. (2012). Human Genome Project, Genomics, and Clinical Research. Principles and practice of clinical research (Third Edition). 707-725.

Levine, S. (1957). Infantile experience and resistance to physiological stress. Science. 126(3270): 405.

Mental Health Taskforce (2016). THE FIVE-YEAR FORWARD VIEW FOR MENTAL HEALTH. NHS England.

ONS (2019). Suicides in the UK: 2018 registrations.

Schneiderman, N., Ironson, G. and Siegel, S.D.  (2005). STRESS AND HEALTH: Psychological, Behavioral, and Biological Determinants. Annual Review of Clinical Psychology. 1:607-628.

Thome, J., Hassler, F. and Zachariou, V. (2011). Gene therapy for psychiatric disorders. The world journal of biological psychiatry. 12(Suppl 1): 16-18.

A simple guide to solar fuels 3 – Finding the best material for the job

Last time we asked how we could improve materials such as Fe2O3 (haematite), and how novel materials with more suitable properties could be found. In this, our final post, we will see how computers can help find the perfect material for the production of solar fuels. Finally, we will introduce the key steps that are usually done in a research lab to build a tangible device, a device that can be used to produce a “solar fuel”.

By Dr Miriam Regue and Dr Minsu Park, Research Associates in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

Predicting the properties of potential light absorber materials is an excellent starting point to evaluate their suitability as candidates for solar fuels devices. For example, the Computational Materials Science group focuses on modelling and simulating materials for solar energy conversion applications. Computational modelling allows us to predict the absorption properties as well as understand the inherent features of existing or new material candidates before building a tangible device. For instance, oxide perovskites are a class of light absorbing materials that are gaining significant interest in the field of solar fuels.  Some examples are lanthanum ferrite (LaFeO3), praseodymium ferrite (PrFeO3) or gadolinium ferrite (GdFeO3); they are made of large abundant element and offer good visible light absorption but their understanding for solar fuels production is still scarce. 

Perovskite found in Hot Spring County, Arkansas. Each black crystal is approx. 6-7mm. From

Computers are an excellent tool to predict material properties. They are so powerful that we can use them to run calculations and predict some of these unknown material properties. The results of these calculations help scientists to design a more efficient experimental approach to improve the solar fuel performance. They can acquire knowledge on how thick the material needs to be for boosting light absorption, how chemical modifications can affect the performance and how different structures of the same material can alter the optoelectronic properties.

Once the theoretical knowledge is gathered, the race on designing an efficient device begins. From a practical point of view, the successful material candidate must be stable in water conditions for at least 2,000 hours and provide a solar to fuel efficiency of at least 10%.

But how can we make a device that can be used to produce a ‘solar fuel’?

The first stage of the experimental design is to test the light absorber material at a lab scale. This is usually done following two different experimental approaches: (1) By depositing the light absorber material on top of a flat conductive surface to form a photoelectrode. This photoelectrode generates electric current upon solar light irradiation (photoelectrochemistry) and the electric current is used to produce the solar fuel. (2) Or alternatively, by directly immersing a powdered material in a reactor (photocatalysis) that is illuminated with solar light. Using this approach we can also measure and quantify the amount of solar fuel (i.e H2 (and O2), CO, CH4 …) produced (see the below diagram). Although both approaches are feasible for solar fuels production, thephotoelectrochemical approach is often the preferred one mainly for safety reasons, but also due to better reproducibility in results.

As simple as it seems though, there are numerous challenges that experimentalists face, such as low efficiencies and performances, and poor product selectivity and scaling-up reproducibility. Different experimental approaches are currently under investigation to address some of these issues. In our research group, we follow various novel approaches to improve the response of these materials and to understand and describe their behaviour. For instance, we recently discovered that (1) mimicking the shape of natural desert roses on TiO2, (2) using a polymer as a template for the preparation of LaFeO3 and Fe2O3, and (3) loading copper and graphene oxide on novel halide perovskite materials improves the performance and efficiency of the water splitting process and solar CO2 conversion to methane and carbon monoxide upon solar light irradiation (below diagram).

Schematic diagram of the different materials and approaches employed in the ‘Eslava Group: Applied Energy Materials’ group.

 So, which technology readiness does solar fuel production have right now? Will we ever power our home using a stand-alone H2 device? Is our society ready to produce commodity chemicals (plastic, fertilizers, clothes…) from waste CO2 using solar light?

Unfortunately, photoelectrochemical approaches are still in lab-scale studies, but tremendous improvement has been achieved since their discovery in 1972 by Fujishima and Honda.2 Researchers have achieved solar-conversion efficiencies of 10 % for ca. 40 h and it is expected that similar or even higher efficiencies will be obtained by 2025 on square metre devices with the final goal to achieve a decentralised and local production of solar fuel (H2) at a household level in the near future. Direct CO2 capture and solar conversion is on a similar technological readiness as H2 production. However, the success of this technology relies on the capability of coupling direct CO2 capture technologies with photoelectrochemical set-ups. But undoubtedly, what will mark the deployment of these disruptive technologies and ensure a proper share in the current market is the ability to compete economically with conventional methods of hydrogen and carbon-based products production. Currently, steam methane reforming produces H2 at an average cost of ~ 1.40 $/ kg (it depends on natural gas price), is significantly lower than what is currently estimated for photoelectrochemical devices ( 9 – 11 $ kg-1).[1] However, if the research community manages to overcome the current technical barriers, the cost of hydrogen via photoelectrochemical methods could reach 2 – 4 $ kg-1.[2] This will be an extraordinary breakthrough that will pave the way for solar hydrogen to be included in the future energy mix.


  1. R. J. Detz, J. N. H. Reek and B. C. C. Van Der Zwaan, Energy Environ. Sci., 2018, 11, 1653–1669.
  2. B. A. Pinaud, J. D. Benck, L. C. Seitz, A. J. Forman, Z. Chen, T. G. Deutsch, B. D. James, K. N. Baum, G. N. Baum, S. Ardo, H. Wang, E. Miller and T. F. Jaramillo, Energy Environ. Sci., 2013, 6, 1983–2002.

A simple guide to solar fuels 2 – Bringing to market

Last time we saw the potential solar fuels have in producing clean green hydrogen. But it turns out solar energy can also be used to convert CO2 and methane, potent greenhouse gasses, into high-value products for the production of fertilizers, plastics or even pharmaceuticals. In this post we find out how!

By Dr Miriam Regue and Dr Minsu Park, Research Associates in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

Solar fuels have the potential to not only help us reach net zero carbon emissions, but play an important role in the making of new carbon-based products following a sustainable circular economy approach (Fig. 1).

Direct CO2 capture from air and solar CO2 conversion following a circular economy approach.

However, despite the great promise and potential of solar fuels, they are still far from being commercialised. But why? What is hindering the deployment of solar fuels, and what limitations are we facing?

It is both hard and challenging to give just one simple answer to this question. Remember from our first post that we said certain materials can absorb the energy from sunlight and transform it into electrical current? Well at the moment, the ideal light absorber materials that would lead the transition to a solar fuel-based society are still being researched. In fact, the “ideal” light absorber must fulfil several requirements. For one, it must absorb the widest possible range of the solar spectrum, so we can make the most of the solar energy to use it for the production of solar fuels. Secondly it must be made of elements with a plentiful supply on the Earth’s crust.

To understand the first requirement, we must consider the solar spectrum. It is composed of three different bands; infrared, visible and ultraviolet radiation. Infrared and visible radiation are the majority bands, accounting for 52 – 55 % and 42 – 43 % of the spectrum respectively, whereas ultraviolet radiation represents only 3 to 5 %. To absorb the complete range of the solar spectrum is still a challenging process within the research community. Unfortunately, the infrared radiation – the largest band in the solar spectrum – is not very energetic which makes it very difficult for activating the light absorber material and trigger the production of solar fuels. Therefore, light absorber materials can mainly be activated by either visible or ultraviolet radiation.But, considering the largest portion of visible radiation in the solar spectrum, the “optimum” light absorber material should be particularly good at absorbing light from the visible range (400 – 700 nm). Each material has a specific and unique absorption range – called band gap energy. The band gap energy and the absorption energy are indirectly related. The highest the absorption wavelength, the lowest the band gap energy. It turns out that the optimal band gap values that correspond to the visible wavelengths of the solar spectrum range from 1.9 to 3.1 eV.

The second requirement, that our light absorber material must be made of elements with a plentiful supply on the Earth’s crust, can be solved by choosing a green-coloured elements of The Element scarcity periodic table (Fig. 2). Haematite (α-Fe2O3), which is one of the renowned materials for solar water splitting, is a promising light absorber candidate: It has a band gap energy of 2.1 eV, meaning that it can absorb near the range of 590 nm and it is made of large abundant elements, iron (Fe) and oxygen (O). This makes it fulfil both our requirements!

Elements Scarcity – EuChemS Periodic table

Ultimately, the efficiency of the process also depends on several inherent features of the light absorber material, such as their energetic properties and their ability to convert the absorbed solar energy to the desired solar fuel. In fact, these are the most challenging features to control and as mostly agreed by the research community, probably the limiting step of the solar fuel production. Finding the proper material able to meet all these requirements at once is a cumbersome process and requires the collaboration of scientists and engineers from different fields of expertise such as theoreticians and experimentalists. In fact, although Fe2O3 (haematite) fulfils the first and second requirements (made of abundant elements and suitable light absorbtion), its inherent properties are still not good enough to produce solar fuels in an efficient manner.

But if existing materials such as Fe2O3 (haematite) or TiO2 are not good enough for solar fuels, how can we improve them? How can we find novel materials with more suitable properties? We will find out in our next outing.

A simple guide to solar fuels 1 – Turning sunlight into a fuel

Turning sunlight into a liquid fuel that is an abundant, sustainable, storable, and portable source of energy might sound like the fantasy machinations of a sci-fi novel. However, the reality is possibly even more exciting: energy in that sunlight can be sued to convert COand methane, potent greenhouse gasses, into high-value products for the production of fertilizers, plastics or even pharmaceuticals.

In this series of blog posts we will find out how this is possible, how scientists are on a quest to find the “perfect material” for the production of solar fuels, and how the research community is trying to produce hydrogen, using sunlight, sufficiently cheaply that it will pave the way for solar hydrogen to be included in the future energy mix.

In our first post we find out how solar fuels have the potential to produce clean green hydrogen.

By Dr Miriam Regue and Dr Minsu Park, Research Associates in the Department of Chemical Engineering.

“Climate change is one of the biggest threats that we are facing today” – is a phrase we have probably heard countless times at this stage. It may have lost some of their shock factor with repetition, or have made some of us too disheartened by their meaning that we choose to ignore it, but its message gets more urgent year by year.

As most of us already know, human-made CO2 emissions are one the main triggers of climate change, contributing directly to global warming. However, the evidence for just how rapid and irreversible this change is happening is stark. Over the last 20 years alone, the concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere has increased sharply, reaching a record value of 416 ppm of atmospheric CO2 (June 2020), a ⁓13 % increase since 2000 [1]. That is according to the Mauna Launa Observatory in Hawaii, the institution with the longest record of direct CO2 measurements in the atmosphere. Indeed these concentrations are almost double the amount of atmospheric CO2 that has ever been on Earth at any time over the past 400,000 years. Data shows that this continuous rise in CO2 is directly related to the combustion of fossil fuels such as oil, natural gas or coal that, unfortunately, our society still widely uses on a daily basis. Failing to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels to heat our homes, power our transport systems, and produce our goods, will cause unprecedented change, and damage, to both our way of life and the natural world alike.

Monthly mean carbon dioxide measured at Mauna Loa Observatory, Hawaii, from March 1958 to the present. Imager courtesy of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

The sharp increase in CO2 over the last 20 years clearly shows that scientists, engineers and policy makers must work together, and quickly, to ensure that the energy we produce and the products that we make are not as a result of releasing CO2 into the atmosphere. Indeed scientists and engineers are currently devoting considerable efforts to find efficient and scalable approaches for the production of alternative clean fuels. One revolutionary and promising alternative to conventional fossil fuels are what are known as Solar Fuels. As the name might suggest, these are fuels produced by capturing the abundant solar energy that reaches the Earth’s surface. But as our title asks, how can we turn sunlight into a fuel?

Energy production via solar fuels could recreate the starting chemicals, forming a closed cycle that minimises unwanted by-products. Image courtesy of the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Science

Certain materials can absorb the energy from sunlight and transform it into another form of energy, including electric current – the same principle used in a solar panel. The electric current generated can then be used to split water (H2O) into its components, hydrogen (H2) and oxygen (O2). Currently, the main industrial method for mass hydrogen production is done using a process known as steam methane reforming – which emits CO2. But hydrogen gas produced from solar energy is emission free and among the most promising solar fuels currently being investigated. One huge potential application of solar hydrogen is as an emission free fuel to power the hydrogen vehicles of the future! 

In fact, the European Union has recently released a green hydrogen strategy as part of the European Green Deal in which it aims to deploy green hydrogen at a large scale to ensure decarbonization of industries, transport, buildings and power by 2030. Therefore, it is now the perfect time to boost the potential of solar hydrogen to ensure it can be part of such a fascinating but challenging transition to a fossil-free economy.

In the next blog we will discover that in spite of the great promise and potential of solar fuels, they are still far from being commercialised.


  1. NASA, relentless rise carbon dioxide.

Catalysis through the ages 3 – Looking to the future

The final part of our blog looks to the future, including introducing electrocatylists, which could give the potential game-changer of both generating electricity and producing fuels like petrol and  diesel using naturally abundant substances. We also see how predicting a specific catalyst for any reaction will soon be within reach. It looks like the best days of the alchemist might still be ahead.

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

Ever since the industrial revolution the world has been in a crisis mode. We need more efficient and cleaner energy over the dirty fossil fuels we currently have. The science of catalysis has been challenging the energy sector by constantly developing processes that either reduce or abandon the usage of fossil fuels. It is unfortunate that the biggest bottlenecks for adaptation of such processes are political. The USA signing out of the Paris Agreement on climate change, and China’s increasing reliance on coal, do not help the cause. We have seen historically that man-made devastating events can be tackled when global powers work together in a timely manner. I remember as a child reading about the depleting ozone layer. The problem started in 1980s when it was realised that typical refrigerants, called chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used in our air-conditioners and refrigerators cause breakdown of ozone molecules making us vulnerable to harmful ultraviolet (UV) light from the sun. Global events like Montreal Protocol in 1987 and Kyoto Protocol in 1997 started a wave of cooperation among politicians. Scientists unleashed the power of catalysis by experimenting with different catalysts to find ways to produce variations of carbon, hydrogen, and chlorine that are ozone friendly. The plan worked and the usage of new refrigerants (hydrofluorocarbons- HFCs) have already brought the size of ozone hole at its minimum since 1982. Unfortunately, it turns out that these HFCs contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and countries are now working to replace HFCs with more environmentally friendly natural refrigerants.

Ozone hole over antarctica from 1989 (left) to 2020 (right).

The ozone story can be used to ask a bigger question: Wouldn’t it be remarkable to be able to generate electricity or produce useful chemicals like petrol, diesel, and ammonia using naturally abundant substances like water, carbon dioxide, and nitrogen rather than fossils? This is the exact question chemists are trying to solve with electrocatalysis. Let us dig a bit deeper into this.

Electrocatalysis: Existential crisis to the fossil fuel economy

Electrolysis uses an electric current to force a reaction to occur over a catalytic electrode. Under normal circumstances, this reaction would be extremely unlikely to occur. Consider hydrogen fuel cells. In the previous blog, we discussed how the hydrogen fuel cell economy is challenging the current electricity generation and distribution landscape. The only downside of hydrogen fuel cells is the usage of coal and natural gas to produce hydrogen. Using electrocatalysis, a water molecule is split using electricity, generally produced from a renewable source (wind, solar), to produce hydrogen and oxygen. In another instance, carbon dioxide from the atmosphere is reduced catalytically to form important products like methane (called green methane), hydrocarbons, carbon monoxide etc. The present research challenges mainly surround the choice of optimum catalyst and the ability to scale up a successful experiment on a lab scale to a commercial scale.

The challenge of finding the optimum catalyst

Certain metals and compounds have a natural tendency to increase reaction rates. Ironically, gold and silver, the metals that alchemists wanted to synthesize, have excellent catalytic properties. Finding the perfect catalyst, however, remains a challenge. Major research labs rely on spectroscopy methods like X-ray photoelectron spectroscopy (XPS) or Nuclear magnetic resonance spectroscopy (NMR) to determine catalyst dynamics during an ongoing reaction. The data is used to compare the catalyst dynamics from other samples to find the optimum catalyst. In a positive turn of events, the advent of supercomputers has been like a holy grail to catalyst science. With more processing power, scientists can model the catalyst dynamics on molecular levels and transform the information to something reaction engineers can understand. Computational techniques like Density Functional Theory (DFT), microkinetic modelling and kinetic Monte Carlo (kMC) are used together to predict catalyst properties and reaction dynamics a priori.

As computational power progresses, the dream of predicting a specific catalyst for any reaction will soon be within reach and will provide scientists to engage in public undertakings of world crisis at much earlier stages.


Catalysis as a science is almost 200 years old. The 20th century has seen an explosion of industrial use of catalysts spurred by major historic events like the world war, and the need to find energy replacement by countries. In 2020, the global catalyst market stands at a net worth of USD 35 billion and is expected to reach USD 48billion by 2027 with a 4.4% annual growth rate. It looks small but estimates show that catalysts are used in 90 percent of U.S. chemical manufacturing processes and to make more than 20 percent of all industrial products with a direct or indirect contribution of 30-40% on the world GDP. The industry produces 20% of the greenhouse gas emissions with cleaner options, like blue hydrogen (produced via natural gas), green hydrogen (produced via electrolysis) and green methane, already starting to penetrate the global markets. Processes like Fischer-Tropsch that still take coal as a feedstock to produce synthetic fuel are an active field of research with hopes to reduce the coal dependence by employing biomass as feedstocks. Catalyst industries have also grown hand in hand with the market for production of sustainable energy solutions. Biofuels, from modern day catalysts, are already available for retail consumption in the western world with hopes to enter the markets for consumers in the rest of the world soon. Electrocatalysis is also a budding research field that hopes to completely stop the usage of fossil fuels for energy generation.

Although, countries with natural resources have been self-sufficient with their energy production (Norway with hydroelectricity, Denmark with solar and wind energy), for the rest of the countries relying on oil or coal, catalysts might just be the alchemist’s gold that saves them from an impending energy crisis whilst addressing climate change concerns.

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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Fast fashion 2 – How does the fashion industry need to change?

In our first post, we found out how our fashion trends are having a serious impact on our planet. In our second instalment, we investigate 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.

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

As explained in my first post, it is becoming increasingly blatant that the fashion industry, and specifically the way its operating in terms of fast fashion, is detrimental to the environment. It is accountable for 10% of the CO2 emissions globally (UNEP, 2018), it contributes to 31% of the ocean’s plastic pollution (IUCN, et al., 2017) and a truck of clothes is thrown in a landfill every second (UNEP, 2018). It has been estimated that 1.13 million tonnes of clothing was purchased in the UK in 2016, which is an increase of almost 200 thousand tonnes since 2012. It is clear the fashion industry is not going anywhere; they do however need to work towards sustainability. UK citizens discard around a million tonnes of clothes per year (House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, 2019), considering that they buy a little over a million tonnes per year – there is a clear need for circular economy. Thus, companies need to rethink their traditional linear business models and work towards a circular economy, which is challenging. Circular economy in the fashion industry requires a lot more work than just recycling and reselling clothes and even then, recycling clothes is not that simple.

Circular Economy in Fashion

To achieve circular economy in the fashion industry, companies need to consider several factors including collection procedures, textile recycling, the actual design of products and strategies for resale. Those “action points” were highlighted at the Copenhagen Fashion Summit 2017. As of June 2018, 94 companies signed the 2020 Circular Fashion System Commitment, representing 12.5% of the global fashion market. The 2020 commitment includes the following action points:

  • Action point 1: Implementing design strategies for cyclability
  • Action point 2: Increasing the volume of used products collected
  • Action point 3: increasing the volume of products resold
  • Action point 4: increasing the share of products made from recycled textile fibers.
Figure 1: Circular economy in fast fashion (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).

Business models are expected to integrate reuse and resale into their strategies due to economic and environmental benefits. 95% of the clothes discarded can be recycled or reused. Increasing the life cycle of products by as little as 9 months through reselling reduces waste, water and carbon footprints by 20-30% each (WRAP, 2012). The businesses also have to gain since the apparel resale market share is USD 20 billion and is forecasted to reach USD 41 billion by 2022. This also aligns nicely with shopping habits, where 9 million more women bought second-hand in 2017 when compared to 2016 (ThredUp, 2018). That said, reselling does come with its challenges mainly including the consumers’ perception of used clothing. Another challenge is uncertainty of quantity and quality of products from collection schemes. Global collection rates of textiles are as low as 20%, hence the majority ends up in landfills and incinerators (Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, 2017). Collection schemes would need to consider incentives, transportation, sorting and whether the item will be resold, repaired, recycled with hopefully a small percentage going to incineration or landfill.

What do businesses need to do to achieve circular economy?

Circular design requires businesses to consider their end-goal when it comes to their products. For example, the company can either design for durability where the aim is to extend the use of a garment to multiple owners. And on the other hand, a company can design for circularity where the aim would be to enhance recyclability or biodegradability.

Figure 2: shows the different ways clothes would pass through the value chain depending on the aim behind the textile design (Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, 2017).

Recycling requires technology developments that will incorporate disassembling and then regenerating into new yarn. However, there is still yet to be commercial scale processes that are technically and economically feasible. Currently, less than 1% of the material used to produce clothing is currently being recycled; even though there is potential to tap into the current loss of USD 100 billion from wasted materials (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017).

Implementing such measures would not necessarily exacerbate fast fashion. It would mean that the fast fashion still exists from the consumers’ perspective, but it is slow from an environmental perspective.


UNEP, 2018. Putting the brakes on fast fashion. [Online]
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IUCN, Boucher, J. & Damien, F., 2017. Primary microplastics in the oceans: a global evaluation of sources. [Online]
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House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee, 2019. Fixing Fashion: clothing consumption and sustainability. [Online]
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WRAP, 2012. Valuing our clothes: The true cost of how we design, use and dispose of clothing in the UK.. [Online]
Available at: sites/files/wrap/VoC%20FINAL%20online%202012%2007%2011.pdf

ThredUp, 2018. ThredUp 2018 resale report. [Online]
Available at: https://

Global Fashion Agenda & Boston Consulting Group, 2017. Pulse of the fashion industry. [Online]
Available at: download/3620/

Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017. A new textiles economy: Redesigning fashion’s future. [Online]
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Ellen MacArthur Foundation, 2017. A New Textiles Economy: Redesigning Fashion’s Future. [Online]
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