An Interview with Prof. Peter Styring

Peter StyringIn August 2017, Prof. Peter Styring moved from the Chemical Engineering department to become the new head of the Chemistry Department. With an academic background beginning in this very department, he has forged a career as a leading academic expert in CO2 utilisation, writing several policy documents that shape the landscape of research on carbon dioxide utility.

Joseph Clarke had the opportunity to talk to Peter about his experiences in academia, research interests and activities outside the department.

First, can you just give a brief outline of your academic career?

So, I started in Sheffield in 1982 as an undergraduate before graduating in 1985. Originally I wanted to become a teacher but I stayed on due to commitments with the ski team at the university. This extra year convinced me to do a PhD with Peter Maitlis (who is 85 next year) and Duncan Bruce, who is now HoD in York, and David Dunmur, who was an ex-HoD here. It was a great experience and I decided not to leave academia. So, I got my first Postdoc in New York, State University of New York and Stony Brook which was set up by Fraser Stoddart, who was a great influence. Actually, Fraser was my organic tutor during my undergraduate and Mark Winter was my personal tutor!

I then returned to the UK to take up an lectureship in organic chemistry at the University of Hull for 11 years. I was persuaded to join the chemical engineering department here in 2000 as a senior lecturer and then became Professor of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry in 2007. In reality, I was doing a lot of chemistry under the guise of chemical engineering. Then I heard about the HoD job here and subsequently, here I am.

Can you give a brief summary of your research area?

I was in the inorganic department for my PhD research, but it was mainly cross-coupling reactions such as Heck reactions. Later on this moved into general carbon-carbon cross-coupling reactions such as Suzuki, Heck, and Kumada. Then in around 2007, at an EPSRC event, representatives of other universities and I, had to devise new sustainable chemistry routes to new products. This really was the start of my interest in CO2 chemistry. As such my interests then evolved into using carbon dioxide as a C1 feedstock to replace petrochemicals.

In 2010 we formed the CO2Chem network, a global network of academics, industry and policy makers, known as the Triple Helix model. The three groups are all intertwined and connected. We’re currently at about 1200 members, with me as chair. We’ve just received two years extra funding leading to a total of nine years of funding, which is fantastic.

In abroad sense, what does your research group look into?

In a nutshell, we focus on CO2 utilisation and sustainability via resource recovery. We also look into carbon capture, which currently, is very inefficient. We are looking into new capture agents based on ionic liquids and amines, as well as organic and inorganic polymers. But my group is split between here [chemistry] and Chemical engineering at the moment. I’m hoping to move more people over here shortly, but there are certain experiments already established over in engineering. I have moved 6 postdocs here who are working loosely on policy and life cycle assessment, techno-economics, etc. They’re looking more into the process viability than directly at the chemistry itself. It is almost like being a theoretical chemist, but with a focus on policy.

Still related to your research area you have an interest in policy and you have written a white paper on Carbon Capture Utilisation, would you be able to tell us a little about that.

Yeah, so this was in 2011, we got a grant to work with ECN (Energy Centre for Netherlands), and write a policy document called “Carbon Capture and Utilisation in the Green Economy”. You could almost consider it a review paper but with sections aimed at policy makers. It gained quite considerable global press interest, taken up by Reuters and the Guardian. We’re also able to gather information on citations and, last time I checked, there were 23,000 hits on the document with 2500 citations on webpages.

The paper just came from dedicating time to work on a non-academic journal. This type of document has a technical, scientific section forming the majority of the text. However, there is a less technical, four-page summary and a one-page executive summary for the policy makers to take away the key messages, so it really is tailored for different audiences. The great thing about publishing this type of document is it builds your reputation, meaning people now approach us, and has led to collaborations in terms of both policy and fundamental chemistry.

Are there any other upcoming policy documents or research you can talk about?

We are writing a new white paper as the follow-up to our green economy paper, as it is now 6 years old and the landscape has changed. The research needs an honest and fair appraisal of the strengths, and importantly limitations, of using CO2. Our goal at CO2Chem is to take the middle ground and accept the limitations. The new white paper will be more inclusive looking at the whole carbon economy from multiple perspectives across physical and social sciences.

It sounds nice and interdisciplinary.

Yes and that is key! Funding agencies don’t want to see bubbles with labels like ‘I am an inorganic chemist’ or ‘I am a chemical engineer’. They want physical sciences working with social sciences with research, looking at, for example, the social impact of scientific research.

It sounds like you’ve got a great balance in your work between Science and Policy.

Yeah, what we have managed to do through CO2Chem is provide evidence into government. Evidence validates policy, and policy leads to additional funding. Now, CO2 utilisation is a part of the industrial strategy, with the impact there in government policy. Previous documentation has been referred to this area as CCS, carbon capture and sequestration. It now is referred to as CCUS, carbon capture utilisation and sequestration.

So, you were also in Houston earlier in September for a meeting related to the policy, correct?

Yes, it was just after the hurricane, but fortunately the centre of Houston wasn’t as badly affected as shown on the media. The meeting was organised by Mission Innovation, a very high level, invitation-only event with 22 nations and the EU as a collective. To attend you had to be approved by your national government. There were a series of panels; I think 14 in total, covering 4 areas of carbon dioxide utilisation:
Thermochemical and Hydrogenation of CO2, Photo and Electrochemical Conversion, Biological Conversion and another on Mineralisation.
The aim of each panel was a discussion of the science and what will have the biggest impact. It’s a balance between the profitability and the mitigation potential for CO2 removal.

So, I was responsible for arranging the panel and directing the discussion on Thermochemical and Hydrogenation of CO2, co-leading with Rebecca Bourdreau representing the Oberon Fuels company in California. There were about 20 people on the panel including writers who documented the outcomes. The results will be published early in 2018, with each panel proposing two priority research directions (PRDs) at a fundamental chemistry level.

So, we are currently in a tumultuous landscape at the moment, with many factors leading to difficulties in the University environment. How has this affected your research and the running of the department?

Since the referendum, our funding from the EU commission has actually increased. We are seen as experts, so that is obviously recognition of our good work, but it could also be because people are trying to collaborate with us before it’s too late. The uncertainty with EU funding, means that such collaborations could stop which would be a tragedy.

From a departmental point of view, we need to look into funding options both outside of Europe or alternative mechanisms working with Europe. There is a strong need to succeed in this department. That’s why I have taken on this role.

In addition to research challenges, there are other challenges, including student recruitment. I was wondering if there were any upcoming changes that you could discuss.

As I’m sure you’ve heard, there is a general decline in admittance to science and engineering subjects at universities. There are many factors that have likely led to this situation but likely student fees played a big part. But most importantly, how are we going to address it? We are going to make the course the best course in the country. We are going to make it a department where people want to come and work and study by offering excellent teaching and facilities. Research is great for an institution’s reputation, but students are the life blood of the department, so we must give that a high priority.

As we’ve discussed, research has become more interdisciplinary. Are there going to be more opportunities for students to take their degree and apply it to other subjects?

That definitely is an interesting point. When I graduated in 1985, the chemistry department was definitely organised into IOPA disciplines, Inorganic, Organic, Physical and Analytical, and the course reflected that through a series of non-connected courses. While that has changed, a modern chemistry degree should be a process of discovery. Students start off in year 1 with a limited knowledge of chemistry and should finish with a broader knowledge. A chemist should be able to take something from any discipline and assimilate it, not necessarily through memory, but through knowing the appropriate sources of literature. When I moved to Chemical engineering they said ‘You’re a chemist’ and I taught physical chemistry for the first year. It’s that kind of adaptability that we want to promote, and is something that a chemistry degree needs to provide.

I saw online that you had a stint as an EPRSC senior media fellow. Could you tell me about that?

Yeah! Tony Ryan did the first one and then Noel Sharkey in computer science did the second doing Robot Wars, where he was one of the judges. I did mine on science and engineering in sport and then science and engineering in the kitchen. It was great, working with radio and TV and film producers. It led to me becoming a film producer making my own films, but unfortunately I don’t have the time any more.

Do you have any other interests outside of chemistry?

Well, one positive from film producing was that I started writing my own music to overcome some licensing issues with using music in films. This led me, a few Christmases ago, to build a recording studio in my house. I currently have 3 guitars, an electroacoustic base, a cello, a violin, an electronic drum kit, digital grand piano, 2 synthesisers and various other pieces of equipment. I now do my own multi-tracking for soundtracks. It’s both my hobby and a method of relieving stress.

I am also a keen skier and I was president of the University Ski team during my PhD. I am still a level 3 performance coach and moguls coach, I just don’t practice much. Until about 4 years ago I was the National Moguls Ski Team Coach, which was a great hobby as it led to some research on some of the polymers on ski bases and new waxing systems. So for a long time I was in the Alps testing skis. I haven’t skied in a year but I’m planning on going in the next year.

They are my two main hobbies, but I’m more into music at the moment. It’s great visiting different departmental offices, there are always various musical instruments and hobby items that people bring in to personalise their own space.

Written By:
Joe Clarke

With thanks to Prof. Peter Styring