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PhD Studentship - Redefining the Origin of Life:(Photo)electrochemistry at Subfreezing Conditions

University of Birmingham - School of Chemistry

Qualification Type: PhD
Location: Birmingham
Funding for: UK Students
Funding amount: This Project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust - the recipient will receive maintenance costs at Research Council rates and tuition fees at the rate for UK students. 2021/22 Maintenance Loan = £15,285 per annum.
Hours: Full Time
Placed On: 27th August 2021
Closes: 15th October 2021

The origin of life remains one of the greatest and most controversial problems of science. Since 1953, when Miller and Urey performed their now-famous experiment, the scientific community has been strongly divided over whether life arose on Earth under hot-start or cold-start scenarios. While some studies support the idea of molecular evolution at high temperatures, it is now known that bio-organic molecules are highly unstable when subjected to prolonged heating or are degraded by temperatures exceeding 250°C. Recent studies, on the other hand, have suggested that the temperature on Earth, when life originated, may have been colder, and Earth, more glaciated. The ice may have retarded the breakdown of unstable bio-organic molecules, creating a beneficial environment for the formation of RNA. Therefore, it has been hypothesised that origin-of-life chemical building blocks might actually have emerged at sub-zero temperatures in water.
This project will investigate the (photo)electrochemical synthesis of basic bio-organic molecules from gas clathrates at sub-zero temperatures to provide evidence for the revolutionary hypothesis that chemical evolution occurred at sub-zero conditions.

We have recently discovered that CO2 and CH4 undergo electrochemical conversion in brines, below the freezing point of pure water. We propose that water-based gas clathrates could have acted as sub-zero-temperature nanoreactors for the (photo)electrochemical synthesis of certain origin-of-life building blocks. The project catapults (photo)electrocatalysis beyond the typical operating conditions for synthesis, through a combination of different temperatures and electrolyte compositions, enabling alternative pathways for (photo)electrocatalytic processes, impacting not only organic synthesis, but also biology.

We are looking for a highly motivated PhD candidate willing to work in the interception of material science, chemistry, fundamental and applied electrochemistry. Ideally, the candidate should have a 2.1 of higher degree in chemistry, or a related discipline.

The PhD candidate will be trained in (photo)electrochemistry of carbon-based molecules and nitrogen-based molecules and in different characterization techniques. The PhD candidate will have the opportunity to become experts in their respective subject matter, while learning and collaborating across the project.

1. E Sargeant, A Kolodziej, CS Le Duff, P Rodriguez. “Electrochemical conversion of CO2 and CH4 at subzero temperatures”. ACS Catalysis 10, 2020, 7464.

2. Ahn, Y.-H., et al., “Clathrate nanocage reactor for the decomposition of greenhouse gas” Chem. Eng. Journal 2019, 359, 1629.

This Project is funded by the Leverhulme Trust. The Leverhulme Doctoral Scholar will receive maintenance costs at Research Council rates and tuition fees at the rate for UK students. In 2021/2022 the maintenance grant for a full-time student was £15,285 per annum.

Please contact for details regarding funding and the application procedure.

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