Making chemistry cleaner
In 1823, at the University of Jena in Germany, a chemist called Johann Wolfgang Döbereiner invented the world’s first lighter, the Döbereiner’s lamp. The son of a coachman, Döbereiner had little formal education before being appointed as an apprentice at an apothecary and, eventually, as a university professor of chemistry.
Döbereiner’s lamp was made from a glass jar containing zinc and sulphuric acid, which reacted to create hydrogen gas. When a valve in the jar was opened, a burst of hydrogen was released onto a sponge made of platinum. The platinum was a catalyst, causing the hydrogen and oxygen molecules in the air to react to produce heat. The catalyst became hot and ignited the hydrogen into a flame.
Considered to be the first commercial use of hydrogenation, Döbereiner’s lamp uses the chemical reaction between hydrogen and another element or compound with the aid of a catalyst. Though his lighter was a scientific breakthrough and was still in use right up until the 1880s, Döbereiner himself made little money from it, as he never patented his new technology.
Today hydrogenation remains an important chemical process for the manufacture of products in the food, petrochemical and pharmaceutical industries. And, in the face of the climate crisis, companies like HydRegen—which spun out from the University of Oxford in 2020—are trying to make the process greener.
HydRegen aims to deliver cleaner, safer and more efficient chemical manufacture by designing biocatalysts that can replace metal catalysts. HydRegen says that its biocatalysts can be slotted into existing hydrogen flow reactors designed for metal catalysts.
Holly Reeve, chief executive officer of HydRegen explains that “chemistry is all around us. We rely on chemicals every day, from the chemicals in our medicines and pharmaceuticals to the smells in our cosmetics. What we do here [at HydRegen] is try to make these chemicals more cleanly and more sustainably, and to do that, we look to biology and nature for inspiration.
“So, biology and nature use enzymes, these tiny biological machines to convert one chemical into another… here we want to blend that incredible precision… with the knowledge that we have from process chemistry.”
HydRegen Technologies was originally a research group that was part of the University of Oxford, spearheaded by professor Kylie Vincent, now non-executive director of the company. HydRegenTechnologies won the inaugural Royal Society of Chemistry’s Emerging Technologies Competition in 2013 at a time when the team had proven that their technology worked in a small lab, but needed more funding for further research.
Winning the competition gave Vincent and her team significant financial support and the opportunity to work with mentors from multinational pharmaceutical giant GSK. HydRegen has since received more than £2.9m from Innovate UK, and Vincent was recognised as one of eight future leaders by the New York Academy of Science.