Trio of Manchester scientists win Royal Society of Chemistry prizes

Three scientists from The University of Manchester have been awarded with prestigious prizes by The Royal Society of Chemistry for their research. Professors Sarah Haigh, Jason Mickleford and Chris Hardacre have all been honoured and will each receive a prize and medal for their contributions.

Professor Sarah Haigh has been named winner of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Analytical Division mid-career Award. Based at the University of Manchester, Professor Haigh won the prize for the development of transmission electron microscopy methods for advancing understanding of the dynamic behaviour of 2D materials and nanomaterials.

After receiving the prize, Professor Haigh said: “I’m very excited to have received this prize and thank the RSC for the honour. It is a testament to the hard work of my fantastic research group who very patiently put up with me. I am very grateful to them for their great ideas, persistence, enthusiasm, and collaboration. This prize is evidence that you can continue to succeed in science with a young family even with the huge additional challenges and stresses imposed by the pandemic over the last years.”

Most science and engineering processes occur in liquids or gases. Professor Haigh’s research group uses electron microscopes to study these processes, dynamically, with atomic spatial resolution and chemical sensitivity. Electron microscopes are similar to optical microscopes, but they use electrons instead of light. Electrons can be accelerated to very high speeds, when they have a wavelength 100,000 times smaller than visible light, which gives us the possibility to see atoms.

Applications of their research include studying the early stage synthesis of nanomaterials, the charging and discharging of batteries, the production of electricity from fuel cells or of green fuels from renewable energy, and the corrosion of pipelines or offshore wind turbines. Her research group is particularly interested in the applications for clean energy generation to support the net zero energy transition.

Professor Jason Micklefield has been named winner of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Interdisciplinary Prize. Based at the University of Manchester, Professor Micklefield won the prize for innovative research spanning organic chemistry to molecular genetics, leading to the discovery, characterisation, and engineering of many novel enzymes.

After receiving the prize, Professor Micklefield said: “I am very pleased to win this award. I am particularly grateful to my very talented research group for their hard work, dedication and excellent research over the years, which has made this possible.”

Nature uses enzymes to catalyse reactions building all of the molecules required for life. Enzymes also break down molecules to release energy that enables all living organisms to move forward. Professor Micklefield’s lab discovers novel enzymes from unusual bacteria in nature. They characterise these enzymes to determine their structures and mechanisms. With this knowledge, they are able to re-programme the enzymes to create variants that can catalyse new reactions.

These engineered enzymes are used to produce novel antibiotics to combat antimicrobial resistance, antiviral agents that entered clinical trials for COVID-19, anticancer agents and other useful molecules. The enzymatic pathways they develop are cleaner and more sustainable than the traditional chemical synthesis routes that are currently used to prepare pharmaceuticals and other molecules.

Professor Christopher Hardacre has been named winner of the Royal Society of Chemistry’s Tilden Prize. Based at the University of Manchester, Professor Hardacre won the prize for outstanding contributions to the areas of liquid and gas phase heterogeneous catalysis.

After receiving the prize, Professor Hardacre said: “I was delighted and honoured but surprised.”

Professor Hardacre’s group focuses on the use of solids as catalysts for the production of commodity and fine chemicals and the removal of pollutants. Catalysts are materials that can lower the energy required for chemical reactions to proceed at the required rate. The group uses them in both the liquid phase and gas phase. The research aims to produce chemicals and fuels more efficiently and selectively. As well as having a direct application in the chemicals and energy sector, catalysis is key to achieving net zero.

Dr Helen Pain, Chief Executive of the Royal Society of Chemistry, said: “Great science changes the way we think about things – either through the techniques used, the findings themselves, the products that emerge or even in how we interact with the world and those around us. Importantly, it also allows us to reflect on the incredible people involved in this work and how they have achieved their results.

“Although we are in the midst of negotiating a particularly turbulent and challenging era, it is important to celebrate successes and advances in understanding as genuine opportunities to improve our lives. The work of the three winners from The University of Manchester is a fantastic example of why we celebrate great science, and we’re very proud to recognise their contribution today.”

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