An Introduction to Dr Aleks Gonciaruk; Research Fellow in Gas Adsorption Analysis

My new interest - Hiking!
Good day all! I am Aleks and I am a Research Fellow here at GERC. Just a few months ago I finished my PhD at the University of Manchester, which already feels like ages ago going by how much I have learnt in my new position and from the people I have met. I was very excited when I was offered a position here in Nottingham. The job not only allows a natural progression in terms of my research interests, but it is also located in a nice city in the middle of the country within easy reach of the Peak District and with pretty much everything else close by. The perfect location to pursue my exponentially increasing interest for hiking discovered when I moved to the UK.

I arrived in Manchester in the summer of 2010 from Lithuania where I grew up, however I am only a quarter Lithuanian. I like to say that my genetic make-up is eastern European and I am a citizen of the world (or at least Europe) as I have lived in three countries (or even four if we consider that I lived through the dissolution of the Soviet Union) with Nottingham being my sixth home. I graduated in 2010 from the oldest university in the Baltic States (Vilnius, Lithuania) with a Bachelor degree in Chemistry. During my studies I always drifted towards physical and analytical chemistry and for my dissertation project I developed chromatographic separation method for ionic liquids. This is when my interest in particle interactions and its application in separation and material characterisation science “condensed”. This was also the first time I became truly aware of environmental issues. Ionic liquids are now considered to be used as CO2 capture solvents and one of their main advantages, very low volatility, reduces the risk of accidental release into the environment and contamination. Some ionic liquids can be toxic and combustible nevertheless requiring careful handling and identification methods

Back to Manchester… So in 2010 I was accepted for the postgraduate taught course in Chemical Engineering and Design. I learnt about thermodynamics and mass balances as well as safety and economics of chemical processes. Although I received the highest mark in that year for my methanol production plant design, I remained loyal to molecular scales when I was choosing my dissertation project. I met my supervisor Dr Flor Siperstein, who suggested studying CO2 adsorption potential in novel polymers called polymers of intrinsic microporosity (PIMs, not to be confused with PIMM’s, the popular British summertime drink!) The project was a small part of a bigger collaborative venture ‘Innovative Gas Separations for Carbon Capture’. PIMs have an awkward structure that prevents from efficient chain packing and yields large void volume and surface area, which is very beneficial for efficient gas adsorption. Different building blocks can form these polymers giving a great variety of tailored properties. Although rigid chain is one of the pre-requisites to be intrinsically microporous, some PIMs can still form very flexible and robust membranes attractive for gas separation from industrial streams. I stayed for another six months after my graduation continuing my work on the ‘PIMs project’ and then for a subsequent four years at the end of which I received my PhD degree.

At the start of my PhD graphene was a very fashionable material that as my supervisor once joked Manchester puts in tea instead of sugar. So chemists mixed graphene with PIMs and I continued characterising and analysing them. Only this time I transitioned from the experimental laboratory to more theoretical office work. I developed molecular models of the composite and used Monte Carlo simulations in order to access molecular level insight of its packing behavior and resulting gas adsorption properties. Inspired by graphene and struggles to obtain intrinsically open structures we created hypothetical three-dimensional propeller-like graphenes and suggested a simple approach of creating virtual models for gas adsorption studies in carbons. Later on we moved onto two-dimensions (2D) as we came across this novel network polymer based on the triptycene unit (poly(fantrip)). As a consequence of its 2D structure it resembled ordered PIM chains and graphene but had much larger hexagonal units.  We showed potential of this polymer membrane for carbon dioxide separation from nitrogen and methane.

CO2 with 3D graphene

In July 2016 I joined GERC as Research Fellow. My current work will build upon my previous expertise in gas adsorption analysis, only this time it will involve good old rock rather than novel polymers and fancy graphene, although we may still use graphene-like structures for simplistic representation of complex gas shales. Our aim is to understand competitive adsorption between carbon dioxide and methane in gas shales, and identify and characterise strong adsorption sites. I am lucky that GERC has already established an EPSRC-funded Gas Adsorption A nalysis Suite equipped with different physisorption and chemisorption analytical instruments. Currently I am working on combining two techniques to study heat release/absorption during real-time adsorption mimicking CO2 injection into a shale reservoir and the CH4 recovery process. We are also planning to employ computational techniques to create shale models and better understand gas interactions with shale substituents. Virtual models will require validation for which we are going to take advantage of other facilities available in the University of Nottingham, such as the state-of-the-art Nanoscale and Microscale Research centre.

I have also got involved in a collaborative project with my lab-mate Dr Fernando Sarce and Kyle Louk from Virginia Tech who visited Nottingham this summer. While conducting adsorption experiments they discovered exciting correlations between coal structural properties and CO2 adsorption that we are currently investigating further.

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