PhD Astrocatalysis at Near-ambient Pressure – Transition Metal Clusters at Heriot-Watt University

This PhD opportunity will primarily be based at Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh.

Please contact Prof Martin McCoustra ( for further details.

As recently demonstrated [1,2], Fischer-Tropsch chemistry is potentially an important catalytic chemistry in space environments at high temperatures (T>100 K) and pressures (P>>10-4 mbar) converting the dominant simple species (H2 and CO) into more complex organic molecules over transition metal catalysts. Moreover, it is likely that the similar Haber-Bosch chemistry may catalytically convert H2 and N2 into NH3 in such environments. Mineral phases (mixtures of oxides of silicon, magnesium, and iron) observed in space, are likely supports for the clusters of transition metal (Fe, Ni and Co) atoms necessary to enable these chemistries. 

This project, as part of the EPSRC-funded Astrocatalysis: In Operando Studies of Catalysis and Photocatalysis of Space-abundant Transition Metals (EP/W023024/1) programme, will address a fundamentally important question in such catalytic systems as to the size of the metal agglomerate that is the active site in the catalysis. We speculate that such clusters might range from the molecular scale (single to a few atoms) to truly metallic and even plasmonic clusters (when considering photocatalytic processes). Current work in the project is focussing on single and few atom systems. This project will open experimental explorations of cluster size effects in these catalytic processes.

The project will be based in the Astrochemistry Group of Professor Martin McCoustra at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh. It will utilise the unique UHV apparatus developed there for studies of astrochemical processes on surfaces and in thin films to study adsorption and reaction on, and desorption from, relevant materials (sized-selected clusters deposited on a suitable substrate) under UHV. In addition, through collaboration with the Diamond Light Source (DLS) at Harwell near Oxford, we are planning equivalent investigations using beamline B-07 near-ambient pressure using X-ray absorption and photoemission spectroscopies to help us cross the catalytic pressure gap.

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