Multi-million pound grant paves way for step-change in fundamental chemistry research



Fundamental research into molecular collisions is to be advanced by a major grant awarded to Heriot-Watt University and the University of Oxford.

The £5.9 million Programme Grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has been awarded to a unique team drawn from the two centres of excellence for molecular scattering in the UK.

A new collaboration between Heriot-Watt and the University of Oxford, the project brings together the diverse, complementary experimental and theoretical expertise of both institutions to build on a core of fundamental and benchmark studies, to address previously intractable problems.

Colliding pairs of molecules in vacuum has become a uniquely powerful method for investigating the fundamental mechanisms through which molecules interact and either exchange energy or undergo a chemical reaction. Scattering experiments of this type have reached a high level of sophistication. Theoretical modelling has progressed in parallel, allowing the forces that act between the molecules to be calculated increasingly accurately and providing rigour to the interpretation of the mechanisms. However, until recently, these advanced methods have only been able to treat small molecular systems, typically containing no more than three atoms and often with only one set of chemical products formed via a single mechanism. This grant will enable a range of more complex systems to be tackled for the first time.

Professor Ken McKendrick, lead investigator at the Institute of Chemical Sciences at Heriot-Watt, explains the significance of the grant: “Our vision is to make a dramatic step-change to the field of molecular collisions by extending the range of systems that can be studied to encompass real-world applications. We aim to provide new types of data and, more importantly, new conceptual understanding to scientists working in areas spanning atmospheric chemistry, combustion, plasmas and catalysis. This opportunity can be grasped now because of technical advances in experimental methods and conceptual developments that exploit exponential growth in computing power.

The project will be instrumental in the development of the next generation of scientists, directly funding around 12 Postdoctoral Research Associates. Further funding will be leveraged for around 15 PhD students, and 20 final-year Masters students are expected to benefit from associated research-project work. The team will be trained to a high level in state-of-the-art laser, vacuum, electronics, computational and information technologies, in addition to gaining transferable skills for future employment in a wide range of sectors.

Professor Mark Brouard, Head of the Department of Chemistry at the University of Oxford, and co-investigator on the project, said: “We are absolutely delighted that the EPSRC has recognised the importance of fundamental science and its value in informing a diverse range of research fields. The Programme Grant brings together a great team of scientists and we are really looking forward to working collaboratively with our colleagues at Heriot-Watt to cement and enhance the UK’s long-standing reputation for excellence in the field of molecular scattering. The award of this grant represents a major boost to fundamental research to better understand chemical reactions.”



Susan Kerr

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