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A brighter industrial future

16 June 2011

Ben Ward portrait WEBDr Ben Ward

A research project at the School of Chemistry which is helping to secure a brighter industrial future has been chosen as one of the most important projects currently taking place in universities.

The Big Ideas for the Future report, jointly published today (16 June) by Research Councils UK and Universities UK, pulls together leading research from all disciplines. The Cardiff project was selected for inclusion from hundreds of submissions.

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Led by Dr Ben Ward, researchers at the School are working to develop the use of alternative metals which can catalyse some of the reactions currently carried out by previous metals.

Professor Graham Hutchings, Pro Vice-Chancellor for Research and Director of the Cardiff Catalysis Institute, said: "I would like to congratulate Dr Ward and his team on their inclusion in the Big Ideas for the Future report.

"Research taking place at UK universities is helping to change the world and the way we live. It is great to see Cardiff University’s tradition of world-leading innovation continue and recognised in this important report."

Catalysts - chemical substances that increase the rate and control the selectivity of chemical reactions – are vastly important to chemical science, the chemical industries and consequently to society in general. Precious metals are currently the most successful catalysts. However, these metals are rare, expensive, and a finite natural resource. In order to address this issue, Dr Ward’s team are developing the use of alternative metals for catalysing organic chemical reactions.

Ben Ward in lab WEBDr Ben Ward at work in his lab

Explaining the research, Dr Ward said: "We are working specifically on Alkaline Earth metals, especially calcium which is abundant and readily available. Unfortunately, these metals have a highly complex coordination chemistry, making it significantly challenging to use them to catalyse organic reactions selectively, something which is imperative if a catalyst is to be used in commercially useful products."

Successful application of the Alkaline Earth metals would provide environmental and economical benefits to the chemical industries, which will have a real and significant benefit to society in numerous areas, from pharmaceuticals to household goods.

Dr Ward said: "Our research is at a very early stage but we have already made significant progress. Realistically real applications are still many years away but this is a ladder from which we must start on the bottom rung and climb upwards. With the Alkaline Metals not obeying the "normal" rules of coordination chemistry, we learn more about how to tame these metals with each step we take."

Professor Peter Knowles, Head of Cardiff School of Chemistry, said: "It is welcome to see Cardiff research highlighted in this way, especially as Dr Ward’s group is one of only a small number of research groups worldwide working in this exciting area. This project is an excellent illustration of our School’s commitment and innovation in tackling some of today’s important scientific challenges."

The research team is led by Dr Ward and includes Dr Tracy Nixon, a postdoctoral researcher, and James Wixey, final year PhD student. Financial assistance has been provided by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Leverhulme Trust.

The publication of the Big Ideas for the Future report is part of the second annual Universities Week (13-19 June) which aims to increase public awareness of the many different ways in which universities affect all of our lives.

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Listen to Dr Ben Ward explain more about his research