Chemical Engineering PhD (Speciality Products specialism)

This theme is concerned with the development of products and processes for advanced materials such as paints, pigments, electronics, ceramics, polymers and pharmaceuticals. 

It incorporates the following research groups: Materials processing; Innovative minerals processing; Supercritical fluids; and Catalysis and chemical reaction engineering.

We work closely with the Positron Imaging Centre, which is run jointly with the School of Physics and Astronomy, and has attracted funding of more than £2 million for new equipment in the last five years. Positron Emission Particle Tracking, which was invented at Birmingham, enables product–process interactions to be observed directly in opaque systems by following single particle tracers down to 60µm in size. The technique has enabled the first detailed generic studies of solids motion in fluidized beds (with EPSRC, BP and Unilever), rotating drums and kilns (EPSRC/Huntsman), and paste flows. Novel applications include studies of agglomeration (Unilever), particle coating (Merck Sharp & Dohme), and mixing in polymer processing (EU consortium).

Research groups

Materials processing
Materials processing research takes place in conjunction with the IRC in Materials Processing and the £8 million Net Shape Manufacturing Laboratory, and is concerned with the forming of metals, ceramics and ceramic composites with low defect densities and controlled microstructures, in order to produce products of reliable and reproducible properties. These materials may find functional or structural applications.

Central to our work is the investigation of product–process relationships: the way in which the functional properties of the formed product are related to the properties of the starting materials and their processing routes. There are close links with the particle and solids processing research listed above.

Major research areas include:

  • Modelling paste flows in complex systems
  • Development of theories and practices for plastic forming methods
  • Fabrication of complex net shapes from particulates
  • Development of theories of flow and relaxation in powder suspensions and pastes
  • Zero-defect forming of novel materials
  • Ceramic drying and sintering procedures
  • Forming of particulate catalyst supports
  • Electromechanical devices (with the Functional Ceramics group of the IRC)
  • Casting (with the Process Modelling and Casting groups of the IRC)
  • Fluid flows in aluminium forming

Innovative minerals processing
Innovative minerals processing is concerned with more efficient use of mineral resources and reduction in environmental pollution. Our work covers minerals separation processes, metals recycling and coal treatment. We run an international centre of excellence for microwave processing of minerals: coal, ilmenite, copper and gold ores, with sponsors including the EU, EPSRC and Rio Tinto. We have also developed novel recycling methods for aluminium from secondary drosses in UK landfills, resulting in a pilot plant running in Staffordshire.

Major research areas include:

  • Biohydrometallurgical leaching and modification
  • Efficient separation of minerals from low-grade ores
  • Thermally assisted liberation of minerals
  • The effect of microwave radiation on minerals
  • Recycling of metals
  • Desulphurisation of coal prior to combustion Improvement in bulk solids handling, such as control of segregation

Supercritical fluids
Supercritical fluids research is concerned with the use of such fluids (mainly carbon dioxide, water and tetrafluoroethane) as solvents for extraction of natural products from plant resources; for selective rapid separation of fine solid products, such as pharmaceuticals; and as media for chemical and biochemical reactions. Supercritical fluids provide ideal benign and environmentally friendly media with which to carry out the above processes in a greener and cleaner way, with a reduced number of processing and recovery steps. This is the largest such group working within an engineering department in the UK.

Current work includes:

  • Extraction and isolation of essential oils, lipids and value-added fatty acids from plant material such as herbs and algae
  • Generation of particles of controlled size and morphology by rapid expansion of supercritical solutions (RESS) or by using supercritical fluids as antisolvents (GAS)
  • Regeneration of high quality adsorbents by reversible adsorption/desorption using supercritical carbon dioxide as regenerant
  • Polymer reactions in supercritical fluids (with the University of Melbourne, Australia)
  • Pharmaceutical wastewater treatment by oxidation in supercritical water
  • Gasification of biomass in supercritical water
  • Production of ß-lactam antibiotic intermediates by immobilised enzyme hydrolysis, in compressed tetrafluoroethane
  • Design and scale-up of industrial processes in supercritical carbon dioxide

Research in all these areas is concerned with the fundamental and engineering aspects of system kinetics, equilibrium, reactor design and prediction of the reactor performance.

Catalysis and chemical reaction engineering
Catalysis and chemical reaction engineering lie at the core of many chemical and biochemical processes: This group is one of very few in the UK capable of working all the way from fundamental catalyst design, through formulation and catalyst manufacture, to operational issues and reactor design.

We are particularly concerned with design of catalysts and reactors for high selectivity and therefore better environmental performance.

Industrial sponsors include the world's second largest catalyst company, Johnson Matthey, as well as numerous operating companies such as BP and Unilever. We are part of a new multi-million pound programme with EPSRC, Johnson Matthey and a consortium of university collaborators aimed at achieving 100% selectivity in catalytic processes for hydrogenation, dehydrogenation and oxidation.

Current projects include:

  • Studies of hydrogenation reactions in novel bubble columns, patented at Birmingham
  • Studies of hydrogenation, dehydrogenation and oxidation on supported catalysts
  • Achievement of better selectivity/mass transfer in microreactors
  • Packed bed catalytic reactors for hydrogenation
  • Novel twin-screw extruders with surface-catalytic action
  • Novel catalysts, catalyst design and characterisation
  • Polymer reactions in supercritical fluids (in conjunction with the Supercritical Fluids group)