Catalysts of change

As a schoolboy Jack Fletcher had an intense interest in pure science, but when he went to university he signed up for a degree in chemical engineering instead of the love of his life — physics.

Fletcher, who is now professor of chemical engineering at the University of Cape Town and director of the UCT centre for catalysis research, as well as director of the department of science and technology and the national research foundation centre of excellence in catalysis, says there were no job prospects for physicists. So he chose chemical engineering because it offered more pure physics and chemistry than many other courses.

He has found that the practical path has proved to be the right route for both his career and his commitment to science.

Having finished his degree, Fletcher did his PhD in catalysis, which is the acceleration of a chemical reaction through the use of a catalyst.

He later joined the CSIR and became involved in growing specialised semi-conductor crystals for use in optical tele-communications devices.

Returning to UCT he joined the academic staff and carried out a lot of consulting work with the private sector.

His involvement with commerce and industry was strengthened further when he took up a post in Germany to run S’d-Chemie’s seven research laboratories around the world.

“I returned to UCT in 1999 and we built up the centre for catalysis research into a very strong unit with good industrial links.

“The technology and human resources for industry programme [Thrip] allowed us to match money provided by private sector companies to build up the capacity and infrastructure so that we are able to conduct competitive research with a strong commercial bias,” Fletcher says.

He says the centre’s work has become an example of what can be achieved with good collaboration between the private sector and an academic research facility in a specific field.

“We have a very strong network that includes three catalyst companies and four operating companies with South African, European and United States interests,” Fletcher says.

The centre has a number of main research threads, which are allied to particular private sector partners.

Each agreement is unique and the centre’s arrangement with Anglo Platinum via United Kingdom­-based Johnson Matthey is aimed at addressing a particular industrial application. “We designed equipment to carry out the project and this is now being used to test materials prepared by Johnson Matthey,” Fletcher says.

Another project is a collaboration between Albemarle Catalysts, PetroSA and UCT. “The project is driven by the centre in that we make the scientific and technological case for what needs to be done and they approve the projects,” Fletcher says.

Under an agreement with Merisol and S’d-Chemie, the centre is engaged in developing new catalytic processes based on their feedstock in South Africa. “While many of the projects are driven by us, they are moderated by the industrial partners.

“It develops into a technical discussion between us as to the most beneficial route forward.

It is unusual in a university environment, but we are very focused on industrial outcomes and developments that result in new industrial activities and processes,” says Fletcher.

“The true measure of success is new plants being constructed in South Africa or one of the other countries involved in the projects.”

While projects have different goals and partners, Fletcher says there is a common thread running through them, namely the use of zeolites (unique nanoporous synthetic aluminosilicates) as catalysts in various processes.

The zeolites have a defined crystal structure with narrow pathways through them that are about a molecule wide.

As a result, the molecules of the materials being processed can pass through the zeolite’s channels only one by one. Furthermore, only molecules of the right size can fit into the channels.

“We apply zeolites to all the projects and this gives us particular advantages in the processes being developed.

The projects are usually aimed at developing improved or totally new processes that are also environmentally friendly.

“In the past these processes often required the use of chemicals that are harmful to the environment and by using the zeolites we have no impact on the environment,” Fletcher says.

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Andrew Gillingham
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