Welcome to Pitch Your PhD – Shownotes

Season 1, Episode 6

Converting CO2 with Pradeep Murthy

Pradeep Murthy is passionate about helping stop climate change.  And he is contributing to this fight with his PhD, specifically investigating the ways and means of nano-catalyst conversion of CO2.

Carbon dioxide definitely is a major issue because it’s so abundance in the atmosphere surrounding us. And I thought by the time I started my PhD, that we needed to find a solution to it.

On this week’s episode, Dr Catherine Ball chat with Jordyn Thomas, who recently submitted her PhD thesis at La Trobe University, on the close relations between the renal systems and hypertension…

This is a “kind of, sort of, vaguely close” copy of the words from this episode.

IT IS NOT 100% accurate.  We are very sorry if we have spelt something completely incorrectly.  If it means a lot to you to have it corrected, email us at mel@ramaley.media

[00:00:00] Catherine: Hi, and welcome to pitch your PhD. In this podcast, you will hear from PhD students from the past and present to inspire the future. I’m your host, Dr. Katherine. Ball.

[00:00:10] So I probably mentioned this before in our previous episodes that I strongly believe the PhDs are fundamental to the success of the Australian economy.

[00:00:20] And I can’t stress enough the benefit that a PhD can bring to the table when it comes to corporate decision-making. And I’m delighted that our guest today shares the same thoughts with me or at least I hope they do. We’ll find out in a sec Today I am joined by Pradeep Murthy, a PhD candidate at the University of Sydney, born and raised in Sydney.

[00:00:39] Pradeep grew up in a family of engineers where his father and grandfathers were engineers too. While he claimed that his interest in engineering is not because it runs in the family though. I personally believe that engineers are born, not made. Pradeep admitted that his father was part of his inspiration and doing engineering. So while doing his last year of undergraduate study in chemical engineering Pradeep landed several internships and this is where he discovered that the world needed more research in order to grasp what’s lacking in the industry, be it discovering new things or discovering a new technology to help the process and doing a PhD will help him gain the practical skills that can be transferred into industry to develop new things or new processes. Pradeep believes that research is what will shape the future. New ideas are needed to be developed to improve the future. And it’s not being done fast enough.

[00:01:25] Thesis Title

[00:01:25] Catherine: Hello, Pradeep Thank you for joining me today. I just, I agree. I agree. I’m doing the sort of, you know, jazz hands about everything that I’ve just read out about yourself, but please, tell me, in a nutshell, what is your thesis about? What’s it’s title?

[00:01:37] Pradeep: The thesis is nano catalyst development for cO2 conversion, cO2 being of course carbon dioxide. And the main purpose of the thesis is to determine if we can synthesize materials at the smallest scale possible at nanoscale that can ultimately convert carbon dioxide via a chemical reaction into alternative products that will be of great use to us. Fuels or chemicals that will ultimately have a direct impact, on the environment.

[00:02:11] The research

[00:02:11] Catherine: So the first time I think the general population understood what catalysis was, was with catalytic converters in cars.

[00:02:17] When we got rid of all the leaded petrol we weren’t to unleaded petrol. and so you could always smell someone’s catalytic converter if they were driving in front of you. Cause it had like a hydrogen sulfide smell around it. So, how do you take a standard chemical engineering process, like catalyst and actually create a nano catalyst? How do you take that material that’s used in catalytic converters or in other types and turn it into a nano catalyst?

[00:02:43] Pradeep: Well, a catalyst is just a material generally that is used to accelerate the progress of a chemical reaction. The catalytic material takes in the key chemicals that you want to react together and they will form a brand new product from doing so. It could be a, usually it’s a metal they use, but you might also add additional materials to it because you might want to increase the surface area. So because by increasing the surface area, you can react more chemicals together. You could, improve the way in which more materials is absorbed by the catalyst. the idea behind a catalyst is simply to accelerate that reaction is to make it fast. And the reason why my PhD topic takes that form is ultimately because we want to try to solve this global climate problem carbon problem quickly. And therefore catalysis is, I would think the best way to do it because it addresses this, global issue urgently.

[00:03:41] Now as for a nano catalyst. Effectively the same thing, except the materials are much smaller. Individual particles are at nanoscale and therefore the surface area is much larger. So the reaction will occur much more quickly. So it’s all about, using fine size materials that can be obtained. I mean, we can obtain powders now for, all kinds of materials and therefore mixed them together. When we synthesize a catalyst we basically mix the materials together and form brand new, I have to say very beautiful, new sort of structures and shapes I’ve even seen, from papers I’ve read, it was even a star shaped, literally star shaped catalysts that I found online, which I thought was a step forward because you, you would never have expected that such unique shapes could even be formed at such a small scale, but it’s been done. And therefore, I think in that regard, the purpose of a nano catalyst is simply to really hone down the size attribute and say, by increasing the surface area of the material, we can make the process even faster. And in fact, nano is definitely a word that is or term that has become very common and ubiquotous in STEM society nowadays, because everyone wants to really hone down the size in order to get more out of the functionality and I think that’s, really the difference in this case with the nano catalysts, you’re just synthesizing it with the smallest particles that you can possibly.

[00:05:08] Catherine: So nano catalysts can be used to do lots of different things. Why are you focusing on carbon dioxide conversion and what are you going to make from CO2?

[00:05:18] Pradeep: Well, carbon dioxide definitely is a major issue because it’s so abundance in the atmosphere surrounding us. And I thought by the time I started my PhD, that we needed to find a solution to it. I mean, you know, I think Elon Musk released his, great global challenge awarding.

[00:05:37] Catherine: $100 million. It’s the gigaton X prize.

[00:05:40] Pradeep: exactly. an enormous amount of money, which just goes to show that there was definitely a common interest in trying to solve the problems. So I thought, okay, maybe I can give this a go. I did work, in my honors thesis hydrogen production, by catalysis. And I thought that definitely does have a great deal of value, but I also thought carbon dioxide is definitely going to remain a big problem. If we did find a solution to solving that surely that will open up a great deal, more set of opportunities.

[00:06:11] Catherine: what are the real world applications of this research, then And we talking carbon farming? Are we talking massive factories that are effectively sequestering CO2 out of the atmosphere to fight the climate emergency?

[00:06:11] Real life applications

[00:06:21] Pradeep: Yes we are. But, my research is about carbon conversion. So if we were to use this sort of project to combine. The conversion aspect. In other words, direct conversion of carbon dioxide with basically the immediate absorption of carbon dioxide, for one thing, it would save a lot of energy because you’re basically recycling the energy needed for both. But, so I think the main ambition is to combine the capture. So as soon as you captured it, can we ideally convert it at the same time? So it just saves a lot of time mindset, a bit of energy as well, just to, and storage, physical storage, because that’s the kind of the issue with carbon capture whilst it is very effective and it’s shown to be effective. It’s the storage is a main issue. Can we convert it and then try to immediately, you know, package it or use it straight away as an energy source or whatever.

[00:07:15] Catherine: Okay.  Is this the cure to the climate emergency?

[00:07:18] Pradeep: I think it is the, a potential cure for the climate emergency because catalysis basically accelerates the chemical reaction. So normally if you wanted to convert carbon dioxide and in the case of my thesis, hydrogen, if you want to react those together, just normally it would take an enormous amount of time. It would take quite a lot of energy as well with the catalyst, you can attract those two materials for example, together. And it actually makes the interaction between the much easier over the material surface. A ca talyst by the way is basically just a material. Usually it’s a metal that’s basically attracts the, chemicals together for them to interact with each other and therefore form the design products what we’re doing in our search isuh, we’re basically using heat. because that is at the moment it’s basically thermal catalysis or traditional catalysis methodology. All those do exist such as photonic catalysis which uses, sun radiation and electric catalysis, which uses electricity as the energy source. These, I think are very promising. But at this very time, they’re not as efficient. The reason why we’re using thermal catalysis, you know, using heat to, as the energy source to drive the chemical reaction on the catalyst is simply because it’s known and therefore it’s a much quicker way of doing so much more efficient and therefore we can address the climate challenge much more urgently. So that is why I’m focusing or with why research group on this particular topic is focusing on thermal catalysis like this because we believe it’s the quickest way to address the challenge.

[00:08:58] Catherine: There’s a lot of chemical engineering conversations involved in the climate emergency. Now we’ve got conversations happening about green hydrogen. Where we’re going to be using renewable energies to actually create hydrogen as a fuel? So your research is looking at how to produce Nano catalysts to enable us to convert CO2. Can we convert CO2 fuel? Is this a closed loop system around fuel management from our carbon dioxide? We’ve pumped out through burning fossil fuels. Is this a way to turn it back into a fuel again?

[00:09:24] Pradeep: Yes, it could be because, the products you can obtain, for example, by reacting carbon dioxide with hydrogen, it is ubiquotous I mean, there’s so many different, fields and chemicals you can produce. I mean, you could produce carbon monoxide, methane, methanol ethanol, methanol and ethanol are already a very good and very highly used, in the fuel industry. you could produce a dimethyline. you could raise all kinds of fuels and chemicals there are so many, but the idea is that, you could reconvert them basically into those fuels and chemicals, and then they don’t become, because they’d be obtained sustainably from the atmosphere. If they ideally, if they were to go back into the air, once they’re combusted or burns, then carbon dioxide, of course it would still be in the air. So it could be ideally recaptured and the process can be started again.

[00:10:20] Catherine: So one of the outcomes of nano catalysts for CO2 conversions is something called ethanol, which other people might understand as alcohol. So do you think that, we could create some kind of CO2 conversion alcohol that would actually be fit for human consumption with these catalysts.

[00:10:39] Pradeep: I would say in the realm of all of that is science. Anything is possible.

[00:10:43] Catherine: but I’ll drink to that.

[00:10:44] So we’re going from carbon neutrality as a conversation to carbon negativity. What is it that your PhD is going to be able to add to the conversation around CO2 conversion?

[00:10:53] Pradeep: It will, with the work I’ve completed so far showcase that it is possible and it should be addressed as much as possible. That’s a carbon dioxide can be reduced into forms that don’t, uh, harm the atmosphere quite as much because carbon dioxide amongst all the greenhouse gases is the most ubiquitous is the most common, can we get rid of it or rather converted into alternative forms that don’t make it, as harmful to the atmosphere around us. So I think what I’m trying to do as part of this research is show, at least show that with enough research focus, it is actually a feasible solution and it is possible for governments around the world to say, okay, we should definitely start developing this idea even further in industry because it’s, I don’t, I’m not of the opinion at the moment that it is being addressed well enough to actually solve the climate change crisis. So I think my phD would actually show, hopefully show that, these things can be addressed and that there is definitely potential if we can see progress in the work. And, I think, the research I’ve done thus far, with the papers I’ve published as of now, for example, that, these are definitely very plausible and a reachable target.

[00:12:08] Why PhD?

[00:12:08] Catherine: So what was it that drove you to actually undertake a PhD in this rather than just work in industry about it? What’s so special about a PhD in nano catalysts for CO2?

[00:12:30] Pradeep: I think generally a PhD does give you the opportunity to develop your own ideas and to develop your own solutions and say, “well, I’ve created something as well as original as possible in accordance with trying to solve the major crisis in this case crisis that is happening in the world around us”. nano capitalists you know, for me were an interesting way to say. Industries already adopt catalysis as a means of generating products from raw materials. Can this be improved even further? And I think the phD was an opportunity to try to find  feasible solution that can be taken to industry very effectively. I think this is definitely one that can be implemented in industry and it’s already been done. there is a plant in Iceland I think it’s called de George Olah renewable methanol plant. And, it’s basically, converting carbon dioxide into methanol using the same process because methanol is appreciated as being a very valuable, commodity as a fuel chemical.

[00:13:35] Interest in Studying Engineering

[00:13:35] Catherine: So let’s go, let’s go back to when you were younger, and you started getting interested in these things this level of engineering always been of interest to you? What was it that sparked your desire to keep studying and not stop at any point

[00:13:46] Pradeep: I thought I liked sciences particularly towards the end of school, because I started to realize then that there were certain practical applications, but I couldn’t decipher that for a large portion of my life until I got to university, like where exactly is it? And I think that was because there wasn’t enough communication about the true applications of sciences in the real world. I mean, we learned a lot of theories. That’s Important, but what is the application of these theories in the world surrounding us? And I think, I think I was missing out on that while I was at school, I picked engineering because I felt that was the best way. To combine that, uh, that interest, level of those interest levels, I should say, together, for example, the mathematics, the real world applications, the way to sort of improve life and revolutionize the world a little bit. I think that was where it all sort of came together for me because I thought I have the power as I’m sure a lot of other people do to change the world.

[00:14:51] Catherine: No, I think we all think that don’t we I don’t think anyone goes into a PhD without thinking they are going to change the world somewhere. We’ve got delusions of grandeur. Haven’t we, or are they delusions I mean, people make groundbreaking work.

[00:15:01] Barriers entering PhD

[00:15:01] Catherine:  So the world for the PhD opportunities and the ability to study opened up for you, when you got to university, you finally saw how things were actually a real opportunity to study and work and create a career. But What kind of barriers did you face going through university to choose your phD pathway?

[00:15:17] Pradeep: I think the main obstacle for me was not being assured of what exactly the opportunities were in terms of research until late into university. I feel the biggest mistake I made was not having taken advantage of that Even earlier, like when I was maybe in second or third year and because then I might’ve understood this a bit better. Maybe I could have tried a solution. not that I would have immediately found an answer to that problem, but at the same time, maybe I could have tried more opportunities. understood the way in which the industry worked a little bit better, a little bit earlier, so that at least I can show my passion, much earlier into my early research career and perhaps, contributed a bit more strongly to that because I do feel very strongly for this.

[00:16:00] I did actually for six months go to Sweden as an exchange student. And I did, finally manage to converse with phD students and ask them sort of what kind of opportunities there are over there. and I did visit the labs over there and they definitely showed that there was. It’s something worth actually investigating. It was basically to do with, material sciences and, risk analysis. But the idea was that I got a chance to actually to have a better look. cause I was just doing subjects that, which happened to coincide with PhD students they’re doing work or perhaps for their own purposes. But the idea was that, there was a new kind of interaction I saw. This is actually pretty cool stuff. That they’re doing investigating new theories, new ideas.

[00:16:48] Ultimately I chose a PhD because I did believe that, uh, there needed to be a major upheaval in the way in which, the world is sort of functioning and operating in terms of, how do we stop all these, you know, particularly in the case of greenhouse gases, what is actually harming our atmosphere. So. I think for me as well, on a more sort of general note, greatest obstacle is just sort of realizing that the world does need to come to terms with the fact that we need to stop these things from happening. We need to find a way to challenge the global climate issue

[00:17:21] Positive aspect of Phd

[00:17:21] Catherine: So what’s been the most positive aspects for you out of your PhD journey so far?

[00:17:26] Pradeep: I would say. Even if you don’t do a PhD, it’s the same message that, you know, that you’re committed regardless of why you do. that’s been important to me even throughout this journey, that’s something I always wanted to tell everybody that, you know, this is what I’ve learned from my PhD, that you might as well stay committed to what you believe in, because it will always reward you no matter what you do. And, that obviously applies to me in terms of research, because I believe research does have the power to show the problems that the world is currently facing and the fact that we can actually solve them if we put in enough time and effort into doing so. I think other than that the most rewarding thing is the fact that, my supervisor, as well as all the students and researchers in our group, we definitely support each other a lot. We help each other out a lot. I think that’s the most helpful because it means we don’t lag too much on our own if we have a problem we just ask. And, it’ll hopefully be answered very, very efficiently and usually is. because we know there’s a lot of ideas being shared between everybody and that’s why we know a lot of the content. Through each other and therefore it, we don’t feel as stuck as we think we might’ve done if we didn’t have each other to, provide support.

[00:18:43] Catherine: Yeah. I think it takes a bit of team spirit.

[00:18:44] What does PhD add to life

[00:18:44] Catherine:  But, what does this PhD give you almost spiritually? What does it add to your life doing this PhD?

[00:18:51] Pradeep: I think the phD does guarantee a sense of responsibility, a sense of understanding, a sense of, determination, well, I suppose a sense of, um, spirits as well, because you’re so committed or you should be very committed to the work you do, because it could actually, it should have an impact on the way in which the world is currently functioning and will continue to function over time. So I think that is the motivation for me, that there is a way of, bringing new ideas and bringing new value to the world around us. I think That was always the motivation for me, actually,

[00:19:30] PhD Support

[00:19:30] Catherine: So looking at your pathway and your journey, you’ve got your wonderful PhD supervisor whom you’ve known for years and have known would be a great supervisor for you because of their passion and their expertise around the area that you want to get involved with. But who else has been a person that’s inspired you or helped you along your journey through to your phD?

[00:19:47] Pradeep: well undoubtedly, my family, my family has been quite supportive of my work. even though they don’t, they don’t fully understand it as well because they don’t research my field, but they know they have accepted. I’m grateful for the fact that they have accepted that the climate challenge is indeed a problem, that at least goes to show that even my family are prepared to support that there is something that needs to be done. That is very comforting for me to accept.

[00:20:12] Advice to younger self

[00:20:12] Catherine: So if you think back to sort of like your 10 or 12 year old self, and you sit at where you are now with your PhD, what advice would you give yourself all those years ago to make sure that you stay on this track? That’s going to be fulfillment for, for what it is you want to achieve with your phD?

[00:20:28] Pradeep: I think firstly, don’t listen to the naysayers. If they have ever said to you that it’s not possible, or it’s not worth it then The first thing you can ask them is, “have you tried this yourself?” if they cause usually it comes down to experience. If you know, it’s always worth trying something effectively, phD is almost like that. You are basically running a trial has strong potential you know, just in any of any kind, but, um, it’s more about understanding that the world doesn’t have to be in any sense. It shouldn’t be black or white. It’s always, um, a multi-dimensional aspect to understanding in which the way the world functions and that’s how it always should be given how much particularly technology is improving. Well, the world is improving. It’s understanding of everything. that, means that we have to evolve our knowledge and our understanding of the world, at, at, equal, right. Or at least we should try to, and on that basis, the most crucial thing is not to resort to anything that might in any way suggest that these things can’t be done. or that it’s not the best idea. I mean, it could, you can make it a good idea if you’re committed to it. Because as, as anyone would say, if you’re determined to find a solution to a major problem, then you will, it will definitely be a great work for you. I mean, it’s great. it’s an amazing, commitment to what you think, what you are devoted to. And I think that’s always a great.

[00:21:53] After PhD

[00:21:53] Catherine: So next year you finished your PhD. What’s next. After that in the big grand plan?

[00:21:58] Pradeep: I’ve always wanted to go to Europe to be able to work. I am very much thinking about the possibility of working, and continuing my research. in Europe, just to, for at least a few years, just so that I can adapt to that kind of environment, that kind of culture a lot of students might do traveled a little bit around Europe and I really got to see a lot of, the different cultures, different kinds of people, their motivations. And I have to say, the university that I went to, which was in Sweden was very good. Top class university. And I thought, this kind of is a good insight. I mean, I love europe as long as I can remember, but I’ve always wanted to try to live there for a bit of time and say, well, at least I can take that off my list, but even more so can we solve these same challenges in, major engineering countries as well, such as germany, such as. the scandinavian countries or the Netherlands, and bring that knowledge back to australia and say, well, these are the lessons I’ve learned. Do you think we can implement them in this very country or anywhere else for that matter but I think, I am personally very impressed with the way in which countries, such as germany and the netherlands have been trying to combat the such climate challenges in their own country.

[00:23:18] Catherine: PhD will certainly give you wings. I think you can always have enough points to get visas wherever you are in the world. If you’ve got a PhD, Well, I look forward to following the rest of your journey. Thank you so much for your time today.

[00:23:29] Pradeep: No worries. Thank you very much.