If we want to protect the environment and reduce our greenhouse gas emissions, we need better catalysts for our chemical industry. They play a crucial role in many areas of synthetic chemistry – from plastics to fuel and pharmaceuticals. Unfortunately, catalysts often consist of expensive metals such as platinum. In order to save costs and optimize efficiency, these precious materials typically consist of tiny so-called “nano” particles, or even individual atoms. This is referred to as "single atom catalysis" (SAC).
Prof. Gareth Parkinson from the Institute of Applied Physics at TU Wien (Vienna) has been very successful in this field of research for several years. He has now been awarded an ERC Consolidator Grant by the European Research Council (ERC), one of Europe's most prestigious research grants, to develop new catalysts to make our chemical industry more environmentally friendly. In particular, he wants to focus on using single atom catalysis in liquids - a particularly challenging field of research, which should open up intriguing new possibilities in energy storage and conversion.
The smaller the better
"A catalyst is a material that accelerates a chemical reaction or makes the reaction possible in the first place," explains Gareth Parkinson. "Typically, you have certain chemicals, in liquid form or as a gas, which you bring into contact with the catalyst, and then the desired chemical reaction takes place - for example, the conversion of CO into CO2 in car exhaust gases. In order for the catalyst to work as efficiently as possible, all atoms of the catalyst should come into contact with the surrounding substances. A large metal block would be the worst conceivable way to use the catalyst, because then only the atoms on its surface are able to play an active role. All the atoms inside are wasted.
This is why research is currently focusing on using nanoparticles or even better, single atoms. "This does not only mean that we need less material, we can also control the properties of the catalyst this way”, says Gareth Parkinson. "The chemical properties of single atoms differ from the properties of the same material when used in bulk form. Therefore, it is possible that in single atom catalysis, we no longer need particularly expensive metals such as platinum or gold. Cheaper raw materials may even be more efficient.”
Parkinson's research group has developed important new methods to investigate and control the function of such single atom catalysts using special high-performance microscopes. With the ERC grant, Gareth Parkinson hopes to focus on research into catalysis in liquid media, which is particularly relevant for emerging technologies such as fuel cells.
Gareth Parkinson studied physics at the University of Warwick in Great Britain, where he completed his dissertation in 2007. He then went to the USA as a postdoctoral fellow - first at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland, Washington and then at Tulane University (Louisiana). In 2010 he moved to the TU Wien, where he habilitated in 2016 and currently holds a career position as Associate Professor.
Parkinson was awarded an FWF START Prize in 2015, received the Cardinal Innitzer Förderungspreis in 2017, as well as the prestigious Gaede Prize of the German Physical Society in 2018.
Prof. Gareth Parkinson
Institute of Applied Physics
Technische Universität Wien
Wiedner Hauptstraße 8-10, 1040 Vienna
Phone: +43 1 58801 13473