Mathias Thor Nielsen DTU Kemi 2020

Talented PhD student receives EliteForsk travel scholarship

Wednesday 26 Feb 20
by Tine Naja Berg


Mathias Thor Nielsen
DTU Chemistry
+45 31 33 17 19

PhD student at DTU Chemistry, Mathias Thor Nielsen receives an EliteForsk travel scholarship, which he will use for researching in future catalysts at Harvard University in Boston.

Catalysts are used to produce various chemical substances on which we depend. This applies, for example, to the production of ammonia for artificial fertilizers, where iron is used as a catalyst. The process today requires approximately 2 per cent of the world's energy consumption and is expected to increase if we are to produce enough food for the world's growing population.

Therefore, Mathias Thor Nielsen has decided to explore new sustainable alternatives in his PhD, for which he is now receiving the Ministry of Higher Education and Science's EliteForsk travel scholarship. The scholarship gives him the opportunity to fund a longer stay in Boston studying at Harvard University, where they are scientific leaders in cluster chemistry, which is Mathias' research field.  

“I am researching how to use metal clusters for catalysis. Metal clusters are a class of molecules in which the metal atoms sit close and therefore can interact with each other. The interaction of the atoms provides some interesting new properties that can be exploited for new reactions. For example, in one of the clusters, which I examine, it is shown how six iron atoms work together so that the entire cluster can be seen as one large iron atom. And this "iron atom" has completely different properties compared to what iron normally has," says Mathias, who is proud and honoured to receive an EliteForsk travel scholarship 2020.

He further explains:

"In catalysis, everything is about breaking and forming new bonds between molecules. Unlike traditional catalysis, clusters can break more than one bond at a time. However, it is difficult to design a cluster to achieve this effect. The different properties can be used, for example, in the conversion of nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3), where three bonds need to be broken. In that case, it is much more favourable in terms of energy and thus also economically to break all the bonds simultaneously. Clusters will make this desirable scenario come true in the future."

Today we produce ammonia (NH3) by passing nitrogen (N2) and hydrogen (H2) over a metal surface at several hundred bar pressure and very high temperature. These conditions enable nitrogen (N2) to be activated, but at the same time constitute such adverse conditions that it adversely affects the reaction, thus requiring additional resources. In contrast, nature uses a particular type of cluster to convert nitrogen (N2) to ammonia (NH3) at room temperature and normal pressure. It is the clusters’ ability to break the three bonds simultaneously under mild conditions that make clusters a more sustainable solution, in contrast to the technology we have today.

Unique know-how at Harvard
Mathias leaves for Boston in mid-June and thanks to financial support from the EliteForsk travel scholarship, but also from the Foundation Idella, Kaj and Hermilla Ostenfelds Fond, Reinholdt W. Jorck and Wives Fond, Christian and Ottilia Brorson's Travel Scholarship for Young Scientists and women, he has the opportunity to be there until early January 2021.

“The research team I will be visiting at Harvard has unique know-how about cluster chemistry, including several measurement techniques that I want to learn more about, and in the long term, I will work to get these implemented at DTU Chemistry. It is my plan right now to study the interactions in trimetallic clusters of iron and ruthenium atoms. I use iron as nitrogenase and ruthenium as an artificial alternative. I will spend my time at Harvard mapping and correlating the physico-chemical properties of the clusters against their reaction patterns to gain complete insight. Besides, the research community around Boston is exceptional, and I will therefore, spend time expanding my network.”

About EliteForsk travel scholarships

Ministry of Higher Education and Science awards 20 EliteForsk travel grants. The travel scholarships must be used for particularly talented PhD students to complete long-term study stays at strong international research environments.

Learn more (In Danish)

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