KESS 2 and Tata Steel UK : Postgraduate collaborative research success at USW

As we near the end of the programme, KESS 2 and USW would like to showcase the outstanding research achieved through industry collaboration with our company partner Tata Steel UK with the following case studies. Over a period of 8 years, Tata Steel UK has supported 16 PhD projects and 1 Research Masters project, producing research of national impact across Wales and the UK. You can read about the projects below:


Dr Rhiannon Chalmers-Brown

Refining of Steel Manufacturing Co-Production Gases

Rhiannon’s PhD research developed a biorefining process to take greenhouse gas emissions from steel manufacturing and convert them to commodity chemicals for use in biopolymers and plastics. Since completing her PhD in 2020, Rhiannon continued to work with USW and Tata Steel UK for two years as a researcher and process engineer on bioreactor projects.

In November 2022, she joined Ricardo as a Senior Consultant and now works on a wide range of projects from decarbonisation and alternative fuels to chemical risk and emergency response training. In her current role, Rhiannon has had the opportunity to attend fire behaviour lectures, work with the Health and Safety Executive and is planning on speaking at several conferences on Hydrogen Safety and Response in 2024.

“Learn whenever you can and treasure the feeling that there is always more to know.”

She says, “My KESS 2 PhD gave me the best foundation for working in pioneering sectors of industry. It’s given me the skills and confidence to work on complex problems for clients to help them solve real world problems. The best part of my current role is passing on my knowledge to the learners on our courses in creative ways through science demonstrations and exercises. My advice to anyone at the beginning of their journey is that you never stop learning, even when you think you’re at the top. Learn whenever you can and treasure the feeling that there is always more to know.”


Rebecca PetersDr Rebecca Peters

Using Big Data to increase productivity

Rebecca’s PhD looked at the continuous casting system that Tata Steel UK use in the steelmaking process, where molten steel is solidified into a ‘semi-finished’ form for subsequent finishing. In particular, Rebecca researched the complex data which is generated during this process, and how it affected the productivity of Tata’s casters.

Steel is a key material for the construction and delivery of renewable energy sources such as wind, hydroelectric and solar power, with the construction of one wind turbine requiring up to 230 tonnes of steel. Rebecca’s aims were to develop a predictive tool to decide when a caster should be taken out of production for maintenance. She utilised the latest Big Data tools to highlight underlying patterns and relationships within the data, while working to develop new techniques using novel applications.
The tool could then enable Tata to increase efficient productivity by lessening their unplanned shut-down times, and therefore reducing the associated costs. Rebecca said,

“Having Tata Steel UK as a company partner was brilliant. I got to work with real life data and contribute towards something that will hopefully make a real impact.”

Since completing her PhD, Rebecca is now Head of Subject Computer Science and Mathematics at the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Science at USW.


Dr Shannan Southwood-Samuel

Upgraded value of coke oven by-products – deriving higher value chemicals from Coke Oven by-products and wastes

Shannan’s PhD in collaboration with Tata Steel UK researched coke oven by-products, specifically looking at coal tars, to extract high value commodities from waste by-products using a green and sustainable methodology.

Coke ovens can hold up to 36 tonnes of coal that is pushed in by drams, sealed under airtight conditions and heated to 1100 – 1200°c. The process, known as coal coking, produces the coke which is then used in Tata’s blast furnaces. There are many by-products associated with this method, including coal tar, which were not being utilised to their potential. Shannan’s research to upgrade the by-product’s value was therefore fundamental in evaluating how to utilise the waste, boost the green prospectives and economic value of Tata’s by-products and increase the sustainability of their industrial processes.

The methodology employed in her research used ionic liquids, which are a greener alternative to the traditional solvents currently used in industrial applications. Shannan’s successful project developed 18 novel ionic liquids for the extraction of phenol from coal tars in high extraction efficiencies. Her conclusions hold strong potential to be taken forward in a pilot study within Tata Steel UK.


Dr Adam Jones

Development of a Novel, Non-Destructive Technique for In-Line Measurement of Chromium Thickness on Packaging, Electrolytic Chromium Coated Steel

Adam pursued a PhD program in Electrical and Electronics Engineering through a collaborative effort with Tata Steel UK Research and Development and Trostre Coated Products, located in Llanelli. The research primarily centred on the exploration of an innovative method for measuring the thickness of metallic coatings at the nano-scale level, utilising principles of photonics.

Adam achieved significant progress in the development of a proof-of-concept system, demonstrating the practicality of this technique. He is presently engaged in discussions with Tata regarding the potential integration of this system into proposed applications and other related areas of interest.

“These systems are designed to minimise waste and enhance the efficiency of industrial processes,”

Adam said, “I have now transitioned into a full-time lecturer role at the University of South Wales, specialising in the domain of Informatics and Electronics. Concurrently, I am also actively involved in research projects aimed at assisting industrial partners in the creation of novel measurement systems. These systems are designed to minimise waste and enhance the efficiency of industrial processes, reflecting on my dedication to advance in both academia and industry through innovative research and collaboration.”


Dr Marie Clare Catherine

Bio plastics from C1 Gases – Substitute Sustainable Products for Polymer Coated Steel

Marie’s research project with USW and Tata Steel UK, focused on one of the largest producers of steel in the world, which emits more than 6 million tonnes of CO2 annually, with blast furnaces accounting for 70% of this CO2 emission. To lessen the amount of greenhouse gases discharged into our atmosphere, and to limit their effect on the environment, it is crucial to recycle these gases into sustainable products.

Tata Steel UK uses paint coating to prevent corrosion. Given that their existing coatings, like the majority of coatings on the market, are derived from petrochemicals, a biodegradable product with comparable properties would contribute to reducing the negative environmental impacts of the steel industry.

It was proposed to use glycogen accumulating organisms (GAOs), which are bacteria obtained from wastewater treatment plants, to produce mixes of biopolymers called polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA). With acetate as the sole carbon source and by varying several culture conditions, different mixes of PHA were obtained. Marie’s research concluded that PHA produced from acetate through the conversion of blast furnace gases were suitable for steel coating.


Dr Michal Czahor

Co-electrolysis of simulated coke oven gas using solid oxide electrolysis cell (SOC) technology

Michal’s research investigated the use of fuel cells technology for utilisation of coke oven gas (COG), a waste by-product of steel production. Whilst approximately 50% of COG produced is utilised internally, the rest is flared or wasted, contributing to carbon emissions and wasting valuable resources as well as reducing the quality of air. Michal’s work demonstrated the considerable potential to upgrade COG using SOFC technology, which could enable greater downstream recovery and purification of H2 from an underutilised industrial waste resource.

“My project through the KESS 2 programme in collaboration with Tata Steel UK provided great insight onto the problem in real life and its implications on the industry.”

Although further studies are necessary for implementation of the technology, the project demonstrated a principle of the SOCs operation on COG and suggests a potential solution to rising greenhouse gas emissions within the iron and steel industry.

Michal said, “My project through the KESS 2 programme in collaboration with Tata Steel UK provided great insight onto the problem in real life and its implications on the industry. KESS 2 helped me gain a variety of transferable skills in research via workshops and training, easing the overall process of the PhD. I still continue to use the skills I developed during my PhD in my current position as Senior Research Assistant at USW. I am planning to continue my career in research further investigating SOCs and other technologies for the improvement of sustainable chemistry.”


Dr Sjoerd van Acht

Hydrogen separation from Coke Oven Gas

Sjoerd van Acht started his KESS 2 scholarship in September 2017. His subject was hydrogen recovery from steelworks gases under supervision of DoS Jon Maddy, Director of the Hydrogen Centre in Baglan as part of USW. The research entailed an in-depth literature survey on hydrogen separation technologies which, along with the insights from the industry partner Tata Steel UK, formed the foundation for the subsequent work.

The acquired knowledge was used to invent a novel, robust and efficient hydrogen recovery and compression process based on the combined Pressure Swing Absorption and Electrochemical Hydrogen Purification and Compression (PSA-EHP/C) technology. This process was extensively modelled and a pilot scale validation set-up was realised at the Baglan Hydrogen Centre.

The work found promising results from technical, economical and environmental perspectives and reassured Tata Steel UK’s potential to valorise its by-product waste gases into high-value, high-purity hydrogen using the PSA-EHP/C process, whilst also driving down its greenhouse gas emissions.

Sjoerd said, “The community-like support from the KESS 2 team at USW and all fellow students made the hard work bearable. After completing my PhD in April 2021 I now work in the green hydrogen space in Netherlands, where I develop innovative AEM and PEM electrolysers for decentralised green hydrogen production.”


Dr Ieuan Griffiths

Predictive Analytics of Real Time Caster Data

Ieuan’s research, in collaboration with Tata Steel UK in Port Talbot, was conducted around Predictive Maintenance – an important and up-and-coming area of the steel industry that allows companies to identify maintenance requirements and minimise its frequency rate based on real-time data. Predictive Maintenance can improve production yield, reduce downtime, and can even prevent the occurence of life-threatening events. Applying Predictive Maintenance in the steel industry can therefore create a safer working environment for employees and bring financial benefits to the company.

Ieuan’s PhD in Data Science captured many of the aspects he appreciated and enjoyed during his undergraduate study, further driving his passion to research computing and programming whilst developing his higher-level statistical and mathematical understanding of the algorithms used.

Ieuan is now employed as a Senior Lecturer in Data Science and Mathematics at the Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Science at USW.


Dr Ruggero Bellini

Investigating the Robustness and Intensification of a Novel Biomethanation Process for Energy Recovery for the Steel Sector

Ruggero Bellini started his KESS 2 PhD scholarship, supported by Tata Steel UK, in September 2017. His research investigated the robustness and intensification of a novel biomethanation process for energy recovery for the steel sector, using waste H2 and CO2, supervised by Prof. Sandra Esteves and Dr. Tim Patterson.

As part of the study, the following aspects were achieved: a) delivery of a hyperthermophilic biomethanation operation using different mixed bacterial and archaeal consortia, particularly important when dealing with hot gases from site; b) compared various temperature operations; c) optimised inocula selection, pre-processing and bioaugmentation strategies as well as nutrient media fractionation; d) investigated the impact of N2 and ammonia on process performance.

Ruggero completed his PhD studies successfully in February 2021 and proceeded to work as a postdoctoral researcher at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia in Italy.


Samuel Baker

Development of Hydrogen Storage Materials Based on Amine-Boranes

During his KESS 2 Research Masters, co-sponsored by Tata Steel UK, Sam investigated the utilisation of ammonia by-products to generate amine-boranes which could be used as a hydrogen carrier.

His studies focused on the use of ruthenium-based catalysts to facilitate the release of hydrogen gas from amine-boranes at room temperature and under low catalyst loading. He also analysed the kinetics and potential mechanisms for the hydrogen formation from these hydrogen carriers.

“I learnt a considerable amount on the course and feel very fortunate to have had the experience.”

The main aim of his project was to identify potential re-uses of the waste gases generated by Tata Steel UK during steel production in order to increase the sustainability of the process.

Sam said, “I learnt a considerable amount on the course and feel very fortunate to have had the experience. Many thanks to KESS 2 for facilitating the project as I really appreciate all the help and support throughout. I am also very grateful to Gareth and Nildo for their time and effort in the project, I can’t praise either of you highly enough”.


The Company Perspective

Gareth Lloyd

Tata Steel UK

The collaboration between USW, KESS 2 and Tata Steel UK started in October 2015 with a meeting between Professor Richard Dinsdale and the Tata team. We wanted to learn more about the Sustainable Environment Research Centre and within just a few weeks we had three KESS 2 applications ready to submit.

As the programme grew, we met Professor Gareth Owen and the collaboration with him has yielded a number of topics that deserve to be progressed past the PhD stage and onto further research and pilot plant studies. The option to treat coke oven by-products with ionic liquids is novel, energy efficient and sustainable. Carbon capture using ligands and complexes also has real potential. The race is on to find the first carbon capture and use the technology, and the team at USW are certainly playing their part.

The work with Associate Professor Christian Laycock on various applications of solid oxide fuel cells within the steel industry shows real promise. Any technologies that challenge the status quo on the use of fuel gases, hydrogen and ammonia have the potential to be taken up across our industry, not just in the UK but much further afield. The work on biological fermentations could provide a decarbonisation route for a number of industries, not just steel.

The concept that Professor Alan Guwy introduced us to is relatively simple with low cost equipment but with high value products. The pilot plant called COACE that transforms the carbon in blast furnace gas into acetates has been the stand out success of the whole collaboration. The pilot plant built following the knowledge gained during the KESS 2 funded PhD continues to be in operation and is collecting data that will inform further developments.

On average the group published two academic papers per KESS 2 project. There was a strong focus on helping the students find employment and the group won a number of awards during the time of the collaboration, with both USW and Tata Steel UK benefitting from positive publicity.


The Academic Supervisors’ Perspective

Faculty of Computing, Engineering and Science


Professor Gareth Owen, Professor Alan Guwy and Dr Nildo Costa

We have four chemistry based KESS 2 projects which have been in collaboration with Tata with the supervision team (Owen/Costa/Guwy). These have been focused developing methodologies to mitigate the waste chemicals generated within Tata’s steel production.

One project has focused on carbon (CO2) emissions and has looked at the developing new synthetic routes to new molecules from this waste gas. A range of novel metal-based complexes have been developed as potential catalysts for this transformation. Furthermore, this project was instrumental and acted as a seed project leading to three additional research projects including a SERC Cymru Capacity Builder Award, a UK Catalysis Hub project and an IDRIC project. These projects have focused on the carbon dioxide molecule and aiming at utilising CO2 as a feedstock for the synthesis of commodity chemicals. These have led to two publications to date.

A second project focused on understanding the fundamentals of how efficiently hydrogen can be generated from amino-borane molecules. The project looked at the energy required for this process to understand its potential suitability for an industrial process, where the amine-component can originate from ammonia gas produced in the steel manufacturing process. Essentially, this could utilise waste ammonia impurity gas as a hydrogen carrier and source of hydrogen.

A third project focused on the challenges associated with the presence of sulfur-based compounds within coke oven gas. The project focused on the synthesis and application of transition metal complexes for the transformation of sulfur-based components into new chemicals. Some of the results achieved have recently been published.

The fourth project involved extracting high value commodity components (such as phenolic compounds) from coal tars. The research focused on the design and synthesis of new Task Specific Ionic Liquids (TSILs) for the purposes of extraction and separation of valuable chemicals from tar via specific solvent-solute interactions. This was shown to be successful and demonstrated potential for larger scale testing. This project also led to employment of the student via a graduate scheme based at Tata Steel UK.

Thus far, two projects are complete, and the two students (SS and SB) have recently passed their viva. One student is currently in the writing up stage and will be submitting in the next couple of months. Another student is currently in the later stages of the laboratory work and will be completing their studies early next year.

In summary, the KESS 2 projects have acted as seed projects for further research and has provided training for four postgraduate students in our research area, in addition to leading to a number of publications.


Associate Professor Christian Laycock

I currently have three active KESS 2 projects which have been carried out in collaboration with Tata Steel UK. Two of these have focused on the use of high temperature fuel cell technology for the recovery of useful products from waste streams produced from steelmaking. The first project investigated the recovery of hydrogen from coke oven gas using solid oxide electrolysis technology and showed that this process could potentially generate enough hydrogen to exceed the current demand for hydrogen worldwide. The second project investigated the disposal and utilisation of aqueous ammonia waste generated from steelmaking and demonstrated that solid oxide cell technology can be used to generate electrical power or hydrogen from this waste stream with complete disposal of ammonia and no emissions of harmful nitrous oxide pollutants.

These projects were instrumental to the development and outputs of the ERDF RICE project and an IDRIC project. In addition, they were key to the development of the Ammonia Energy conference series led by Cardiff University and the fuel cell symposia within. The research was presented at this conference in 2022 and 2023, as well as the prestigious 17th Symposium on Solid Oxide Fuel Cells in July 2021, and the 242nd Electrochemical Society Meeting in October 2022. In addition, there have been four publications from these projects in Energy Conversion and Management and ECS Transactions, with further publications expected in 2023 and 2024. To date, Czachor has completed his PhD and Ragu is nearing the end of thesis writing. In the final project by Standing, the recovery of zinc from scrap metal resources has been investigated using zinc-bromine battery technology. This project has demonstrated clean and efficient recovery of high-purity zinc using a modified membrane-free zinc-bromine battery design which is simple, low-cost and requires environmentally benign materials. The work has so far been published in the prestigious journal ChemSusChem and Standing is currently in the closing stages of thesis writing.


Associate Professor Jaime Massanet-Nicolau

Senior Lecturer in Bioenergy Microbiologist

For the biorefining/CCUS projects we have collaborated with Tata Steel UK on two KESS 2 projects involving Marie-Claire Catherine and Rhiannon Chalmers-Brown, supervised by myself, Alan Guwy and Richard Dinsdale. These projects have focused on the conversion of waste carbon gases into valuable compounds through microbial conversion routes.

Rhiannon’s project involved developing a technology we now refer to as COACE which involves harnessing microorganisms’ ability to convert carbon monoxide present in blast furnace gas into acetic acid, a versatile platform chemical worth $600 per tonne, providing a unique way for Tata to treat waste gases as well generate new revenue streams through the sustainable production of this platform chemical, which is normally produced from fossil fuels.

In collaboration with Tata, USW has built a pilot scale demonstration plant at the Port Talbot Steel Works. The plant integrates a 100L bioreactor with novel separation and concentration technologies for the in situ recovery of the acetic acid produced. The work has been presented at the 17th IWA World Conference on Anaerobic Digestion in Michigan, where it won the prestigious Lettinga Award, the first time a UK Research Group has done so. It has also been featured on the BBC’s Wales Today programme. Work on the extraction technology, which involves a novel combination of pervaporation and electrodialysis has also led to the publication of a paper in Bioresource Technology.

The second project involved microorganisms utilizing the acetic acid produced via COACE to produce PHAs, a class of biological molecules which can be used to sustainably produce bio-plastics. PHA is worth up to $5500 per tonne meaning that the revenue from acetate production can be multiplied if it is used as a feedstock to produce PHA. Polymers and plastics derived from PHA are also bio-degradable, preventing harm from their accumulation in the environment and providing sustainable routes to polymer production.

By collaborating with Tata, Marie-Claire was able develop a lab scale bioreactor fed with acetic acid and tailor the conversion process not only to optimise production but also to influence the resultant PHAs produced so that they exhibited properties which were of specific use to the steel industry, such as coatings for steel products. Her work was also presented at 17th IWA World Conference on Anaerobic Digestion and has led to one publication already, with a second publication already submitted.

Both Rhiannon and Marie Claire have successfully passed their vivas and their work has also led to follow-on funding being obtained for the production of VFAs and PHAs from waste carbon through the UKRI funded IDRIC research programme.


KESS 2 and Tata Steel UK projects still in progress at programme end:

PhD write-up period
Zinc in steelmaking: Its significance and recovery

PhD write-up period
Conversion of Sulfur Rich Compounds into Sulfate as a Synthetic Strategy to Sulfuric Acid

PhD write-up period
Extraction of Zinc from Scrap Steel Using Zinc-Bromine Battery Technology

PhD write-up period
Recovery and use of ammonia from coke-making processes

PhD write-up period
Development of Methodologies for Conversion of Carbon Dioxide in Value Commodity Chemicals via Transition Metal Mediated

PhD write-up period
Biological Desulphurisation of Coke Oven Gas (COG)