Rising research star awarded prestigious Royal Society Research Fellowship

Tuesday, 18 October 2022

A chemistry researcher has been awarded a five-year fellowship from the Royal Society for molecular nanoscale research that could help towards securing a sustainable future for the global chemical industry.

Dr Ben Pilgrim, a Research Fellow from the University of Nottingham’s School of Chemistry has been awarded over £1 million through the fellowship to develop his research into molecular self-assembly of “nanoboxes”.

Chemists traditionally make molecules one bond at a time which makes constructing large and complex molecules very time consuming. Dr Pilgrim’s research focuses on molecules that can undergo reversible bond making and breaking until they come together into a larger well-defined structure – a process called self-assembly.

3D printed structures of some of the metal-organic cages that Dr Pilgrim works with, about 100 million times larger that actual size

Through manipulating these interactions, the assembly of matter can be controlled on the nanoscale, creating nanoboxes, 10,000 times smaller than a human hair. Dr Pilgrim’s research group specialises in metallosupramolecular cages, made from both metal ions, and carbon-based ligands or struts. These cages have shapes such as cubes, tetrahedra or prisms, with an inner void or cavity which can trap or bind another species of interest. This might be to extract something that is really rare, to act as a sensor, or to stabilise something otherwise only fleetingly existent.

Forty-four chemical elements are at risk of being in limited supply in the next century, many crucial for the catalysts which make the products essential to everyday life. Innovative approaches that improve our understanding of how catalysts work, aid catalyst isolation and recovery, and allow multiple catalysts to work in tandem, are vital for securing a sustainable future for the global chemical industry. Dr Pilgrim’s group will design an array of new nanoboxes to address these challenges.

I’m delighted to be receiving this funding and recognition from an institution as renowned at the Royal Society. This research fellowship will give me the freedom and support to develop exciting research leads, allowing us to expand the functionality self-assembled structures and find new sustainable approaches to chemical catalysis.
Dr Ben Pilgrim, School of Chemistry

Royal Society University Research Fellowships are amongst the most prestigious Fellowships awarded to scientists in the UK at the beginning of their career. They allow researchers to pursue high-risk, high-reward long term goals that cross the boundaries of traditional disciplines.

Dr Pilgrim joined the University of Nottingham to start his own independent research group as part of the Green Chemicals Beacon of Excellence in 2019. Dr Pilgrim's research interests span supramolecular chemistry, self-assembly, interlocked molecules, and catalysis. Dr Pilgrim is also a leading advocate for public engagement and outreach in chemistry. He has been the Head Mentor for the UK Chemistry Olympiad team for many years and has made appearances on BBC radio's The Naked Scientist.

Andrei Khlobystov
Dr Pilgrim’s research project on hollow, self-assembled molecular containers is likely to open new opportunities for analytical and synthetic chemistry alike – the tiny well-defined space (typically under a cubic nanometre) available in these “nanoboxes” may help to entrap and stabilise fleeting reaction intermediates so that they could be studied with greater precision, or change pathways of chemical reactions towards new products inaccessible by other means. This is excellent news for Dr Pilgrim and our research community that the Royal Society decided to support this exciting, highly innovative project.
Andrei Khlobystov, Professor of Nanomaterials and Director of Research in the School of Chemistry

Story credits

More information is available Dr Ben Pilgrim on or Twitter @BenSPilgrim

Jane Icke - Media Relations Manager Science
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