As the Society opens the latest round of the University Research Fellowship scheme, Inside Science takes the opportunity to catch up with a current researcher to see how this early career fellowship has helped them on their path.
Dr David Fairen-Jimenez leads the Adsorption and Advanced Materials Lab within the University of Cambridge’s department of Chemical Engineering. His research focuses on porous materials and their use in gas separation, gas adsorption and drug delivery. David began his Royal Society University Research Fellowship (URF) in December 2012.
Please could you describe your research?
Typically we work with porous materials that have a very high surface area such as Metal-organic frameworks (MOFs). A large surface area maximises the possibility of gas and liquid molecules interacting with a material. Not only do MOFs have a huge capacity for storing single gases, they can also be utilized for separation processes which are useful in a number of different industries.
How will your research benefit the carbon capture industry?
In this industry you want to capture just carbon dioxide (CO2), no other gases or water. We are able to use MOFs to selectively bind CO2 and act as a filter while water and other gases such as nitrogen flow through.
What about gas storage?
The challenge with storing gas in an empty tank is that you have to increase the pressure to around 200 atm. Alternatively, we can use porous material such as MOFs which allows us to store the gas using a quarter of the pressure – which is great for highly volatile gases such as hydrogen. The resulting storage tanks are both lighter and safer.
What are the challenges?
Using the structures we design in their powdered state would be like trying to use a vacuum cleaner when the bag is full. To get round this, we have to design the material as a pellet or “monolithic” structure to allow for flow of gas molecules. Last year we filed a patent to create these pellet structures and have since created a spin-out company: Immaterial.
How can porous materials be utilized in drug-delivery?
MOFs allow for the controlled release of drugs into the body. This allows us to reduce the burst effect (i.e. very suddenly increment of the concentration) present in most drug materials, or problems with drug solubility in the body.
What motivated you to get into this research? What were you doing before the fellowship?
I did my undergraduate and PhD in Spain and specialised in adsorption technologies – mainly in activated carbons. All this work was experimental but I was also interested in molecular simulations, computational studies and adsorption. For my post doc, I moved to the University of Edinburgh and eventually took up a Marie Curie Research Fellowship, which focused on the simulations and computational studies. After that, there weren’t many lectureships in the UK, so I moved to Northwestern University in the United States. However, I applied for the URF shortly after I arrived and after success, I moved to Cambridge.
By this point I was working on gas adsorption technologies, experimental data, molecular simulations and MOFs – but as I wanted something new I started investigating drug delivery applications. My URF proposal was focused on this drug delivery, and I would say at present it’s 65% drug delivery, the rest is gas adsorption.
Has the URF facilitated collaborations?
The URF allows you the time to meet with collaborators and travel, as well as time to think about blue-sky projects and explore new ideas. Currently I am collaborating in several projects with industry such as BP and Shell for gas storage and purification. In addition, I started working very recently with colleagues in Norway on a project to develop a new material for fishing nets which could help with disease prevention in salmon. This utilises our expertise in advanced materials but is not related to adsorption or MOFs.
How do you intend your research to develop?
Our main focus is porous materials and adsorption, there is a lot to do from a fundamental point of view. Adsorption technologies have been around for a while but when we discover new materials we have to come up with new methods of studying them. Some of our projects are more diverse, such as the project with Norway, but we try to retain the connection to these materials while we expand our group.
Could you tell us a bit more about your spin out company?
At Cambridge we have enterprise teams to explore the markets for potential applications such as ours. It came to light that out of the fifteen companies we contacted about our gas storage materials most of them were interested, so we decided to create the spin-out instead of licensing. It was interesting and has been a very good experience. I wouldn’t have had the time to do this without the URF.
Was this the first time you had experienced this?
Yes, but the Scientific Entrepreneurship module of the Innovation and the Business of Science course run by the Royal Society helped. They are very short so don’t take up too much time. They aren’t for everyone and it depends on your line of research, but for me I found it useful.