Postgraduate research opportunities Intelligent decision system for development of efficient pharmaceutical separation processes


Key facts

  • Opens: Friday 3 February 2023
  • Number of places: One
  • Duration: 3 years
  • Funding: Home fee, Stipend


This work will use a combination of machine learning and molecular thermodynamic modelling to develop a methodology to efficiently develop accurate mathematical representations of the thermodynamics of complex multicomponent mixtures, with a focus on the pharmaceutical industry.
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Students applying should have (or expect to achieve) a minimum 2.1 undergraduate degree in a relevant engineering/science discipline, and be highly motivated to undertake multidisciplinary research.

THE Awards 2019: UK University of the Year Winner
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Project Details

In the manufacture of high-value chemical products, such as pharmaceuticals, separation and purification from complex, multicomponent mixtures are crucial steps. Crystallisation, often accompanied by other separations steps (extraction, distillation) is nearly always deployed, due to its separation effectiveness and extreme flexibility.

These possibilities provide a multitude of choices for selecting the optimal design solution, in terms of product quality and process efficiency, as well as waste production, material and energy consumption. However, the optimal process design requires accurate and reliable thermodynamic data for multicomponent mixtures in the system over a wide range conditions (e.g., solvents, impurity concentrations, temperatures, pressures) which are often missing, especially for new compounds.

These data can be obtained by performing a multitude of measurements across a broad range of conditions; however, this is time consuming, expensive and requires significant quantities of material which may not be available (e.g., in the early stages of drug discovery). Thermodynamic models can be used to estimate these data; however, they have limited accuracy and reliability, especially for compounds and process conditions not previously encountered. In principle, some of these models can be successively improved by incorporating additional experimental measurements. Each measurement has an information value, but it also has an associated cost related to the energy, effort, time, and materials required to perform the measurement.

Certain measurements are likely to be more valuable, resulting in more reliable thermodynamic predictions. However, it is not clear what sequence of which experiments would yield most valuable thermodynamic information. The ability to balance this trade-off and follow an optimal sequence of experiments would be transformative for our ability to rationally design efficient industrial separation processes. The aim of the proposed work is to develop an intelligent decision system, implemented as a software application tool, that will specify the precise sequence of experiments that will most efficiently provide the information to produce an accurate thermodynamic model of pharmaceutical compounds in complex, multicomponent mixtures. The intelligent decision system will be adaptable, so users can define what is meant by optimal: minimizing economic cost, time, complexity/availability of experimental technique(s) or required amount of materials.

The proposed work will use machine learning to develop an automated methodology to efficiently construct accurate mathematical representations of the thermodynamics of complex multicomponent mixtures. This will provide engineers and scientists a novel intelligent decision system to determine the optimal experimental measurements that will most effectively improve the thermodynamic model and yield most accurate predictions. It will radically improve our ability to rapidly and efficiently construct accurate thermodynamic models, which is key to the development of any chemical manufacturing process. Although the proposed project is focused on pharmaceutical separation processes, it will have direct relevance to other industries, such as fine chemicals production, biorefining and bioprocessing. It has a strong potential to be transformative in enabling rational design of efficient separation processes across these industries and we will make it widely accessible to the user community through a user friendly app based interface.

In addition to undertaking cutting edge research, students are also registered for the Postgraduate Certificate in Researcher Development (PGCert), which is a supplementary qualification that develops a student’s skills, networks and career prospects.

Find out more about the Department of Chemical & Process Engineering.

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Funding details

This PhD project is initially offered on a self-funding basis. It is open to applicants with their own funding, or those applying to funding sources. However, excellent candidates may be considered for a University scholarship.

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Dr Leo Lue

Chemical and Process Engineering

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Professor Jan Sefcik

Head Of Department
Chemical and Process Engineering

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During the application you'll be asked for the following information and evidence uploaded to the application:

  • your full contact details
  • transcripts and certificates of all degrees
  • proof of English language proficiency if you are not from a majority English-speaking country as recognised by UKVI
  • two references, one of which must be academic. Please see our guidance on referees
  • funding or scholarship information
  • international students must declare any previous UK study

By filling these details out as fully as possible, you'll avoid any delay to your application being processed by the University.

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Number of places: One

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Chemical and Process Engineering

Programme: Chemical and Process Engineering

Start date: Oct 2023 - Sep 2024

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