Professor Gary Leeke joined us in April 2016 to take up his current post as Chair in Chemical Engineering and Head of the Bioenergy and Resource Management Centre. His research is largely focused on recycling enabling technologies, energy production and energy reduction. Find out more in the interview below:
What attracted you to Cranfield?

I’d been at Birmingham for a long time and I wanted a change. I wanted to work in an environment that was more industrially facing, so this was my main reason for coming to Cranfield. My interest is focused on providing solutions for industry and I was aware of Cranfield’s very strong performance in this area.

What are you areas of interest in the Energy sector?

Largely focused on bio-energy and using biomass as a source for energy, fuels or chemicals. I am also interested in processing waste materials, such as consumer plastics and composites and other carbon-based materials, turning them into liquid fuels and chemical feedstocks through upgrading. Waste plastic is largely derived from fossil-based sources which have undergone numerous processes to produce the chemical feedstocks for their manufacture. Consumer-based plastics are used for a short period of time and are discarded. It seems ludicrous to overlook these materials and continually use more fossil resources. We need to be more circular about our approach to waste to eradicate, for example, the vast amount of plastics in the ocean. We need to be environmentally conscious and strategic with what we do with our resources to reduce environmental impact but to also generate new business. I use conventional thermochemical processes to convert waste materials into chemicals of value. I am also using novel approaches such as concentrated solar power in combination with pyrolysis to process waste plastics into useful products.

What is your research background?

I completed my PhD in supercritical fluids at the University of Birmingham, investigating high pressure phase behaviour and mass transfer in supercritical fluids. I then undertook post-doctoral research developing flow processes for chemical synthesis under high pressure to control selectivity in a joint project with the University of Cambridge. Followed by a post-doc position processing polymers, firstly for medical applications and then for packaging. I have used supercritical fluids across numerous industries from the energy to the pharmaceutical sectors, as well as composites, polymers, medical devices and dairy. Shortly after my PhD I worked in industry for an oil and gas processor, which gave me insight into how businesses operate and the need for timely solutions.

What current research projects are you leading/ involved in?

I am working on a number of research projects, including the upgrading of low grade plastic fuel into higher value fuel and chemicals using a novel reactor that has extremely high mass transfer. This will make the process high efficient. I am also working on new methods to recycle glass and carbon fibre. There are large amounts of both these materials scrapped every year, particularly glass fibre, with an estimated 98% of materials going to landfill. The methods aim to turn the waste into a resource. I have demonstrated the feasibility of re-processing and re-using carbon fibre through the manufacture of a 6.5 m racing kayak from aerospace waste. Read blog

What courses do you teach?

I teach on the MSc in Advanced Chemical Engineering and supervise group and individual research projects. 

What elements of teaching do you most enjoy?

I enjoy imparting knowledge. It’s very rewarding when you see a student get to grips with a difficult concept, seeing their confidence grow and the depth of questions that follow. Graduation is also a highlight, knowing that you have helped them achieve.

How have you found Cranfield so far?  

It’s been very positive and has invigorated me. Everyone’s really friendly and there is a feel of collegiacy. The students are keen to learn and are engaged in learning, so teaching is rewarding. There are some excellent world class facilities, which are accessed by industry and academia. All in all, it’s a very good place to develop my career.