Catalysts for change - Professor Joe Wood

The focus of Professor Joe Wood’s research is bringing about a catalyst for change – literally. Using catalysis and reaction engineering, he is a pioneer of novel processes designed to help alleviate the world’s energy crises by developing new and renewable fuels and chemicals.

His cutting-edge work spans upgrading heavy oil, capture of carbon dioxide from industrial sources, catalyst development and testing, and reactor design and engineering.

‘My main work is on catalysis, and there are several strands to that,’ explains Joe, Professor in Chemical Reaction Engineering, who recently delivered his Inaugural Lecture entitled ‘Catalysts for Change: From Hydrogenation to Secure Fuel Supplies’. ‘Over the last few years there’s been quite a lot of work done on energy and catalysis, in particular trying to upgrade heavy oils that are difficult to extract, to try to make them into usable transport fuels.’

To exploit heavy oils as a cost-effective, greener alternative to fast-depleting petroleum-based light fuel reserves, Joe and his colleagues have been working on a process called THAI-CAPRI (Toe-to-Heel Air Injection and CAatalytic upgrading PRocess In-situ), which was developed for its recovery and upgrading in situ in the reservoir or ground.

‘Take the oil sands you get in Canada – large deposits of bitumen or extremely heavy crude oil, found in north-eastern Alberta, which are difficult to extract and use: the oil has to be converted and upgraded to make it lower in viscosity and sulphur. Normally that would require surface mining or extraction using steam-based techniques, but what the THAI-CAPRI process does is to burn a small fraction of the oil in the ground. The heat released mobilises the rest of the oil and it flows over a layer of catalyst, and the molecules in the oil become cracked, leading to lighter products more suitable for use as a transport fuel.

‘We are working quite closely with the person who invented the process, Prof Malcolm Greaves at the University of Bath, and are now on the third project funded by EPSRC to develop it.’

Unsurprisingly, there are some problems. ‘One is that the catalyst can suffer from deactivation, such as if a lot of carbon gets deposited on the surface, so we are trying to find ways to address this and extend the life of the catalyst.’

Another major focus of Joe’s work is the reduction of CO2 emissions, and this process could contribute to that. ‘It could also cause less water pollution than you get with surface mining; it doesn’t make much of a footprint on the landscape, either, unlike surface mining.’

The process has already been trialled by a Canadian company and is now being tested by China’s largest gas and oil producer and distributer.

‘Potentially, this could make a huge difference. If we can achieve a level of upgrading, it could have much shorter payback time,’ says Joe, who leads the Catalysis and Reaction Engineering research group in the School of Chemical Engineering.

Over the years, his work has become increasingly focused on renewable fuels and chemicals. A recent project involved using catalysis to upgrade fossil oil; now he is working to develop special catalysts to convert bio-oil into useable fuels.

‘The kind of bio-oils we’ve looked at so far include pyrolysis oil, which is made from wood chips, but could be made from things like sewage sludge and municipal waste. Unlike the Canadian oils, this contains a lot of oxygen. Transport oils are mainly hydrogen and carbon, so you have to try to reduce some of the oxygen.’

One way to do this is for the precious metals such as platinum to be recycled from waste materials like catalytic convertors – thus using it again as second-life catalyst to upgrade bio-oils into transport fuels.

So promising is this approach that a consortium is hoping to develop a project to test out the process.

‘Alongside the fuels, we would also like to produce renewable chemicals, such as feedstocks for plastics and packaging.’

A three-year stint in industry at the start of his career has given Joe a valuable insight into the demands and constraints of green business. After completing his first degree, in Chemical Engineering with Environmental Protection, he joined Albright and Wilson in Whitehaven as a graduate chemical engineer. But he missed the world of academia.

‘I was always more excited by research and discovery,’ he recalls. ‘So after three years, I went back to university, doing a PhD at Cambridge. My thesis topic was “transport and reaction in porous catalysts”, looking at the removal of sulphur from oils, and I was sponsored by BP.’

Joe came to Birmingham in 2001, where he has been ever since. ‘The job in here found me really – it was a return to my roots, as I grew up in the West Midlands.’

So what is his long-term professional ambition?

‘It’s to do with moving us towards renewable fuel usage. If we can realise the making of fuels and chemicals from waste, that is really going to solve some of the key problems we have, such as the need to reduce greenhouse gases, and it’s where the UK needs to head by 2050.’