An interview with Professor Adam Lee

Adam Lee is Professor of Sustainable Chemistry and a member of the European Bioenergy Research Institute’s Catalysis research group. In this Q & A interview Adam talks about his career, his research interests and the role he believes EBRI has in the future of bioenergy.

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

I started out at Cambridge as an undergraduate and then PhD student before working for Johnson Matthey developing car exhaust catalysts. After that stint in industry I decided a career in academia was for me, so I returned to Cambridge, researching how to convert methane into useful chemicals. I then moved on to the University of Hull for six years, where I began my own independent research into developing new catalysts, then on to the University of York where I branched into biofuels, working with companies like BP to develop new catalytic technologies to produce biodiesel in a cleaner fashion. Before coming to EBRI this year I was based at the Cardiff Catalysis Institute, where I developed advanced analytical methods to study chemical reactions as they happen, enabling me to optimise these processes.

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

A focus of my research is green chemistry – in essence new and cleaner ways to produce valuable fuels and chemicals while minimising waste production. Catalysts allow us to steer chemical reactions to target products, such as solvents, chemicals, flavourings and fuels, in addition to pharmaceutical products, selectively and in an energy efficient fashion. The ability to synthesise useful molecules without creating by-products allows for extremely efficient manufacturing processes that mitigate environmental damage.

In terms of bioenergy, my work aims to transform biomass (plants, trees and algae) into valuable chemicals and replacement fuels for gasoline, diesel and jet engines, taking advantage of the diverse array of highly functional molecules that nature produces.

Another project I’m working on explores methods to capture sunlight and use this solar energy to convert carbon dioxide from the atmosphere into useful fuels like methane, and chemicals such as ethene or propene which are the building blocks for many plastics and polymers. This approach is called ‘artificial photosynthesis’, and could revolutionise the global energy sector, offering limitless clean and affordable energy, mitigating climate change and providing energy security from our current dependence upon fossil fuels. The key challenge in this research is identifying the right catalyst able to efficiently harness solar energy.

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

I’ve brought a team of four PhD students, four postdoctoral researchers and £1M of advanced instrumentation with me to EBRI. As a team, we are looking to develop basic research through sophisticated analytical techniques, which permit us to study atoms and molecules reacting in real time and get a microscopic understanding of how chemical reactions occur. On the applied side, we look to harness this fundamental insight to design new chemical processes for the petrochemical, fine, agrochemical and pharmaceutical sectors that are much safer and more efficient.

We are also seeking to use sustainable feedstocks in place of fossil fuels, to prepare molecules which may have slightly different structures, but similar functions. For example, plastic bottles are commonly made from PET (polyethylene terephthalate terepthalic acid), which is derived from non-renewable oil; we have developed new solid catalysts to produce an alternative molecule called FDCA (2,5-furandicarboxylic acid) from the cellulose within plants, which has same physical properties as PET and can be easily dropped into existing supply chains.

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

It is an exciting time to be involved in a field such as catalysis, which impacts upon so many key areas of modern society – health, food and energy. There have also been many significant and exciting scientific and technological breakthroughs within catalysis, which offer the promise of a future in which we can ‘dial-up’ materials with specific functional properties at will.

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

EBRI has an extremely high profile, a reflection of the way in which it unifies scientists, engineers and business specialists under one roof within a dedicated physical entity, which is rare in this field. This close collaboration enables us to tackle global problems more effectively, and to bridge the gap between basic science and applied technology and facilitate rapid knowledge transfer from the academic to commercial communities.

6.     Why is bioenergy so important on a global scale? What are the challenges the industry faces?

I believe that the global energy crisis represents the most important challenge facing the world, with accelerating climate change requiring swift alternatives to our existing addiction to fossil fuels. Although there remains an abundance of fossil fuels available to us, the realisation is sinking in that these cannot be accessed without increasing carbon emissions and further damaging the environment. Biomass and solar power represent two of the most promising alternative energy sources. However efficient technologies to directly convert sunlight into chemical bonds for high energy chemical fuels remain many years in the future, and hence biomass offers a critical stopgap to meet short-mid term global energy needs.

The bioenergy industry has faced much criticism regarding the source of biomass for fuels production, and their potential competition with agricultural or food sources and changes in land use. Our work therefore focuses on identifying waste biomass from the agricultural, forestry, food and municipal sectors, such as rice or wheat straw and grasses such as miscanthus. I believe that it is possible to efficiently produce alternative biofuels for localised energy production and niche applications such as the aviation sector.