Forrest Fellowship for Dr Neil Robinson

August 23, 2021

Dr Neil Robinson from the Fluid Science and Resources Research Group has been awarded a prestigious Forrest Research Foundation Fellowship at The University of Western Australia.

The Forrest Research Foundation was established in 2014 following a $65 million philanthropic donation by Andrew and Nicola Forrest through the Minderoo Foundation. The Foundation aims to drive research and innovation capacity in Western Australia by awarding PhD Scholarships and Research Fellowships, allowing outstanding early career researchers to undertake high-quality research at any one of Western Australia’s five universities.

Currently a Research Associate working with Prof Mike Johns, Neil holds a Chemistry degree from Cardiff University and PhD in Chemical Engineering from the University of Cambridge.

His research involves the use of magnetic resonance techniques to develop and characterise functional porous materials for the energy-environment nexus. Recent applications of these techniques include the development of new heterogeneous catalysts for generating biofuel from cooking waste, the screening of microporous sorbents for gas separation and storage, and the evaluation of rapidly setting cement materials.

Neil’s Forrest Fellowship, entitled “A Quantum Spin on Clean Energy: Catalysing the Hydrogen Revolution”, will develop a new family of porous materials called spin conversion catalysts.

Unlike traditional catalyst materials, which facilitate chemical reaction and conversion processes, spin conversion catalysts leave the chemical properties of molecules unaltered, while changing their magnetic properties. These materials are critical to for the liquefaction and hence large-scale transportation of hydrogen, which is experiencing a global renaissance as a green fuel and energy carrier.

“Liquefaction processes are well-established for refrigerants like nitrogen, and for other fuels like natural gas” said Dr Robinson. “In the case of hydrogen, however, this process is complicated by some unusual properties at the smallest, most fundamental level – the quantum level”.

“Hydrogen is really a mixture of two different chemicals: ortho-hydrogen and para-hydrogen. These are identical in almost every way, but differ crucially in one important property: a quantum mechanical property known as spin, which dictates the magnetic characteristics of the molecule.”

“As a gas hydrogen comprises around 75% of the ortho form and 25% of the para form. To liquefy hydrogen, however, the mixture must be converted to be at least 97% para-hydrogen. The conversion between ortho and para forms is extremely slow, but can be sped up by passing the hydrogen through a spin conversion catalyst.”

“These catalyst materials will provide an essential contribution to the decarbonisation of our energy future, but a recipe to make the ideal catalyst is still far from established. In this Fellowship I therefore aim to nanoengineer new spin conversion catalyst materials from the bottom up, producing a materials synthesis recipe to generate new, highly active and easily productive catalysts, forging new means to increase global liquid hydrogen production to enable a low carbon energy future”.

The three-year project is set to make use of the state-of-the-art Raman spectroscopy and nuclear magnetic resonance facilities available within the Fluid Science and Resources Laboratory at the Australian Resources Research Centre (Kensington, WA).

Further details on the appointment of the 2022 Forrest Research Foundation Fellows may be found here.

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