Success from widening access to basic science research tools and synchrotron expertise in Africa

A focus of UNESCO’s International Year of Basic Sciences for Sustainable Development is ‘enhancing inclusive participation in science’. Diamond Light Source was a key partner in START, a collaborative project that sought to foster the development of Synchrotron Techniques for African Research and Technology (START), which ran from 2018 to 2021 with a £3.7 M grant from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) provided by the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Today on World Science Day for Peace and Development, we are highlighting health and energy research enabled by START.

Diamond played a pivotal role in the project, providing African scientists with crucial access to world class synchrotron techniques, beamtime, training and mentoring. Research focused on structural biology and energy materials to address key United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals for health (SDG 3), energy (SDG 7), climate (SDG 13), and life-long learning (SDG 4).

Addressing worldwide energy challenges

Catalysis is essential for the development of a sustainable world and was a focus of the energy materials arm of the grant, along with solar energy, which is a well-recognised sustainable energy solution. These are just two areas in the physical sciences that were investigated as part of START.

Working towards better renewable energy solutions

Catalysis has many applications in renewable energy, where waste biomass is converted to liquid biofuels, or waste CO2 is converted to high value chemicals that can be used in our daily life, or as an alternative to fossil fuels. These applications rely on catalysts but to make this process more sustainable and efficient, advanced techniques are required to understand how the catalysts work under operating conditions. A group of START collaborators used Diamond to understand more about catalyst materials. They were investigating furfural, a bio-derived molecule that can be converted to many useful products that can be used for renewable energy. However, bio-derived compounds are highly functionalised – many parts of the molecular structure can undergo chemical change. Palladium (Pd) nanoparticles are widely used as an active component in furfural hydrogenation – a specific type of reaction that involves the addition of hydrogen to a compound – however, selectivity to specific products is a big challenge. Using X-ray absorption spectroscopy at Diamond, the team demonstrated that a Pd/NiO catalyst can hydrogenate furfural using a dual site process. This work has significant implications for the upgrading of bioderived feedstocks, suggesting alternative ways for promoting selective transformations and reducing the reliance on precious metals.

Read more on the Diamond website

Image: START logo