Catalyst for change: A&S alum Meera Mehta is working on newer, cheaper and more sustainable catalysts

November 8, 2023 by Coby Zucker - A&S News

A&S alum Meera Mehta is at the forefront of research around creating sustainable alternatives to today’s chemical catalysis, the process crucial to almost all the world’s manufactured goods.

The best catalysts are precious metals like palladium and platinum, which are not only expensive, but quickly depleting. Mining them can be environmentally damaging and their acquisition is geopolitically fraught, with much of the world’s supply located in Russia and China.

“My group is interested in understanding the fundamental chemistry of elements like phosphorus, boron, aluminum and silicon that are far more evenly distributed across the earth — and far more abundant — to get them to do catalysis that we rely on these metals for,” says Mehta, who earned her PhD in chemistry in 2017.

For the past three years, Mehta has been a lecturer at the University of Manchester. In 2024, she starts a new position as an associate professor at the University of Oxford, where she completed a postdoc in 2019.

Mehta was also recently awarded a Starting Grant from the European Research Council for 1.5 million euros over five years ($2.2 million). The grant — meant for early career scientists with a track record of success and a proposal that has promise — is one of the most prestigious a researcher can win.

When U of T chemistry professor Doug Stephan heard his former doctoral student had received the grant, he wasn’t surprised.

“That’s just another feather in her cap,” Stephan says. “I'm very proud of her. She’s done really well. I expect great things, but she knows that.”

“Doug is the best,” Mehta says. “He's so supportive of everyone who's left his group, not just me. He always has an open-door policy. He is just an exceptional mentor, an exceptional boss and he continues to cheerlead for you after you exit his group.”

Mehta learned the idea to use abundant elements like phosphorus, boron, aluminum and silicon — otherwise known as main group elements — as catalysts from Stephan when she was still a doctoral student. Stephan was a core member of the group that first discovered one could use elements that aren’t “transition metals” as catalysts in important chemical reactions.

“Everyone thought the star of the show was metals,” Mehta says. “Doug opened the door to getting these other elements to do the stuff we really thought only metals were capable of doing.”

Mehta took what she learned from Stephan and combined it with the research her postdoctoral supervisor, Jose Goicoechea, was doing at Oxford into “clusters” — groups of atoms or molecules bound together. Main group elements and transition metals both make for robust clusters, and metal clusters have commonly been used as catalysts. Mehta has carved out her own niche in the field by investigating the potential of main group element clusters as catalysts for synthesis.

“Right now, we're the only research group I'm aware of nationally or internationally that works on developing these clusters as catalysts for organic chemistry,” Mehta says. “It allowed us to break in and find our own space.”

“It's a direction I hadn't thought about, and I think it's a really creative way to do it,” Stephan says.

Mehta’s research has the potential to shake up how the world performs most of our industrial reactions and could also have massive sustainability implications. Mehta and her doctoral students recently showed that their main group catalysts can capture carbon dioxide and turn it into useful feedstocks — organic materials that can be used as fuels — like methanol. When that methanol is burned as fuel, the carbon would be captured again in a renewable loop.

While her team is still far away from reaching a critical level of efficiency, it’s an important proof of concept and a mark of how far Mehta’s research has come. According to Mehta, none of it would have been possible without her time at U of T.

“The reality is U of T is one of the best research facilities I've ever worked in,” she says. “It's just absolutely phenomenal.

“I’ve said this to people before: the only thing that slows you down at U of T is how hard you want to work. It feels like you have all of the access to equipment and resources. You're also surrounded by really bright, ambitious people, which forces you to up your game.”

When Mehta was considering applying for the position at Oxford, one of the first people she went to for advice was her former doctoral supervisor, Stephan. The two stay in close contact, giving Mehta a constant line back to U of T.

“I feel very lucky for my entire education. And in my mentors,” Mehta says. “I've had a lot of really supportive people around.”