An interview with Professor Karen Wilson – EBRI’s Director of Research

Professor Karen Wilson is Director of Research and Chair of Catalysis at the European Bioenergy Research Institute. In this Q & A interview she talks about her career, hopes for the future and why bioenergy is so important for business.

1.   What’s your background and how did you come to work at EBRI?  

I initially completed my PHD and post-doctoral research in Surface Science and Catalysis at Cambridge University. Catalysis is of great importance to our way of life, contributing to range of industries including the production of fuels, materials, pharmaceutical and even food: the production of margarine involves the use of a catalyst. Catalytic reactions involve the interaction of molecules with their surface, so the area of science I worked on at Cambridge is critical for understanding how these molecules are converted into products over the surface of a catalyst, and is an area I’ve spent much of my career advancing.

Following my PhD I moved into the area of Green Chemistry at the University of York, where I was initially a post-doc working with Prof James Clark before being appointed as a lecturer and senior lecturer, where I stayed for 10 years, researching how catalysts link to sustainability and the use of renewable resources. I was then appointed as a reader in Physical Chemistry at the Cardiff Catalysis Institute at Cardiff University where I further worked on developing catalysts for the synthesis of transportation fuels and it was during that period that I got to know Professor Tony Bridgwater at EBRI through the Supergen Bioenergy Hub, which eventually led to my appointment as Director of Research here in October 2013.

2.     What is your particular area of interest/expertise?

My particular area of interest is heterogeneous catalysis. The role of a catalyst is to improve selectivity within a chemical process and within my team we look at how catalysts can create different products with different end uses, such as polymers, consumer goods, fuels and other chemicals. For example a large proportion of the petroluem industry uses catalysts to convert crude oil into fuels, solvents and commodity chemicals. More recently I’ve been looking at how catalysts can convert renewable feedstocks and waste biomass into fuels and chemicals – clearly extremely relevant to my role at EBRI. My team is constantly looking into ways to make these production processes more economical.

Recently we have also been looking at water treatment and cleaner ways to purify water that has organic contaminants in it – this is an EU project in collaboration with universities in Vietnam,        Malaysia and Thailand. Processing of biomass feedstocks (e.g. Palm oil) can use a lot of   water    which gets contaminated with soluble hydrocarbons so it is important this water is treated    effectively and recycled to avoid problems of pollution. Anaerobic digestion can offer a simple means to partially treat this water, but efficient routes to convert any remaining contaminants are essential.

3.     What do you hope to achieve working at EBRI?

I’ve brought a team of 11 people with me to EBRI and we are in the process of establishing a state of the art heterogeneous catalysis research laboratory which will house advanced catalyst development, analysis and testing facilities.

Our aim is to establish this new research area within EBRI, to complement existing activity around the thermal processing of biomass and add our expertise to broaden EBRI’s already wide range of outputs. Once our team is working at full capacity we will be able to collaborate with chemical engineers to couple up our processes to the pyrolysis and gasification reactors housed within the EBRI building.

Historically within the science profession there has been a disconnect between chemists such as myself and chemical engineers, so working at EBRI is a unique opportunity for me and my team. It gives us the chance to combine expertise and look at how to apply research to real life problems.

4.     What drives you to work in this field? Why does it interest you?

At the end of the day the opportunity to see my work have an end use really spurs me on. Catalysis is an applied area of science, which involves working on a problem that can actually make a difference to people’s lifestyles. Creating sustainable energy and resources is also one of the really big challenges for modern society, so I feel satisfied that our work is making a difference on a global scale.

5.     What role do you hope EBRI will play in the future of bioenergy technology?

EBRI has created an impressive demonstrator site that proves you can generate renewable energy in a big city such as Birmingham – it doesn’t have to be something remote.

Hopefully EBRI’s research is also helping to bust myths about the practicality of renewable energy and prove that it is possible to use waste to generate power. After the initial production of first generation feedstocks, critics started to become skeptical about viability of renewable fuels, which unfortunately this meant that a lot of funding and progress was halted. The work of EBRI is moving this work on again and demonstrating that that bioenergy is a really important part of the renewable energy puzzle. Biofuels don’t have to equate to something bad – there are cost effective and sustainable solutions, particularly if they can be produced alongside high value chemicals and products in a so called Biorefining approach.

6.     Why is it important that businesses embrace bioenergy?

Without business and industry involvement a lot of the technology we are developing can’t be     implemented and as a result we won’t be able to ensure the necessary investment.

There is potential to create jobs, boost economic growth and cut waste though bioenergy by       generating local feedstock and producing local biomass supply chain. The pyrolysis based         methods developed at EBRI could also be key to helping regional companies generate their own     energy – one of our biggest challenges now is to work with more and more regional companies           turn our research into reality.