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Remember sitting in Chemistry, the teacher explaining catalysis to you and you nodded at what seemed to be a fairly straightforward concept; increasing the rate of a chemical reaction by adding a special substance called a catalyst?

Well Dr Jonathan Iggo, Lecturer in Inorganic Chemistry at Liverpool University, has a wider view to share. He commented: “Catalysis is a key area of research in sustainable energy production, eg. for solar cells and batteries. Moreover, the manufacture of fine chemicals, pharmaceuticals, agrochemicals and speciality chemicals rely highly on the process for meeting economic, environmental and sustainability challenges. What this means is that these, and other associated industries in our knowledge-based economy, demand highly qualified and informed young scientists trained in catalysis.”

Catalysis is key to one of Lucite International’s (LI) greatest innovations too – the Alpha Technology, which relies on the use of a large-scale catalytic process to produce methyl methacrylate (MMA) from readily available raw materials. At the end of June 2015, Liverpool University, in the UK, opened its biennial Summer School, Catalysis: Fundamentals and Practice where Neil Tindale, Research, Technology & Engineering General Manager at LI, was invited to share the Company’s pioneering work.

As Dr Iggo commented: “LI has recently commercialised the ALPHA process, a rare example of a completely new, large-scale industrial process that uses radically different chemistry from what had gone before. LI is, therefore, in a near unique position to describe to students the excitement, pitfalls and success of the ALPHA development journey from discovery to commercialisation.”

Mr. Kiran Piduru, Experimental Analyst at LI, reflected on the presentation: ” Dr. Tindale’s talk was inspiring! It was amazing to see the scale-up from a small scale pilot plant to a 120kte production unit with zero injuries and incidents.”

As much as being an educational experience, the Summer School was also a chance for students starting out on their careers to network with one another as well as with the more senior researchers and industry representatives present. LI sponsored the ‘Poster and Pizza evening’ which played an important part in breaking the ice and providing a forum for students to get to know people from outside their immediate circle. PhD students from many UK universities attended the event and there was also a strong international presence with people joining from other EU countries, USA, El Salvador, Brazil, Mexico, and Saudi Arabia.

Pramodh Chirra, Experimental Analyst at LI and a part-time PhD student at Teesside University added: ”The Pizza and Poster night was very interesting as it was both educative and joyful at the same time. It gave all the students a good opportunity to interact with each other. I personally got a chance to see a lot of research before it got published and my favourite part was that the students were asking me a lot of questions when I introduced myself as a LI employee. I have to admit that I enjoyed the popularity. It was like a social outing in a chemistry pub.”

Neil at Lucite presenting on catalysis

Neil shared his thoughts on the experience: “This was a friendly academic event. The host introduced me and LI , and the students and academics kindly clapped and laughed in all of the right places during the talk! Lecturing to a large audience is a bit more challenging than talking to groups of people in meeting rooms as we are used to do at work, but there was time for interaction as well. The subject of homogeneous catalysis seemed of particular interest (the ethylene methoxycarbonylation step in the Alpha process that makes MeP) – by this I mean there appears to be a lot of PhD projects running in the same general area around Europe. This chemistry is one of the most spectacular successes of the Alpha development story, so it was a pleasure to elaborate further with the questions from the audience.”

Lucite International is committed to nurturing talent and so is grateful for the opportunity to support the catalysis leaders of the future. Thanks to all those who attended, the organisers for making us feel so welcome and for making the event such a success!