Professor Peter Robertson is Professor of Chemical Engineering in the School of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering. An expert in energy and environmental engineering, his research focuses primarily around photocatalysis – the use of light to create and accelerate reactions – and its applications for solving key energy and societal challenges, including water decontamination and sustainable energy.
Peter also chairs Queen's Change Management Group, a working group made up of academic and professional services staff which helps the University progress towards its vision of becoming a low carbon organisation by reducing our carbon emissions and providing a high quality and sustainable working and learning environment for students and staff.
What first attracted you to your research field?
When I was an undergraduate, we undertook a module on photochemistry, and the whole idea that you could actually drive processes and reactions by shining light on things intrigued me.
The environmental aspect also had a strong influence on me. The Chernobyl disaster occurred when I was in the final year of my undergraduate degree. Following this there was a heavy rain storm over Cumbria and parts of Northern Ireland which deposited radioactive material from the Chernobyl accident. Consequently at the time the concept of nuclear as a cleaner energy source became less acceptable. Solar technologies for energy conversion seemed to me to be a more desirable energy generation process.
We were also then beginning to get the first indications of problems around climate change, and water pollution was a significant problem.
About that time, Mary Archer had written a very interesting article in Chemistry in Britain called 'Abiological Photosynthesis', which looked at using photocatalysis as one route for alternative energy generation. Her paper was given to us as undergraduates to review as one of our pieces of coursework. When I met Mary several years later at a conference, in 2001, I was able to tell her that the reason I'd followed this career path was influenced by the paper she'd written in 1982.
What impact is your research having on people's lives?
My research looks at other ways we can generate energy without having to use resources that are not actually going to be available for much longer.
We need alternative, sustainable energy sources and one of those could be provided through photocatalysis, through a process called 'artificial photosynthesis'. This year, with one of my postdocs, we developed a module for our final year Chemical Engineering students specifically on this as an emerging technology.
My other area – photocatalysis for water treatment, or disinfection – is just as vital. Water decontamination (the removal of contaminants like cyanotoxins released from blue-green algae, destruction of bacteria, or even the removal of pharmaceutical residues from water) is another area that this technology is likely to have an impact. In particular this is the case for developing nations where a significant number of people die each year as a result of drinking contaminated water, but which also experience an abundance of sunlight through which photocatalysis could potentially provide wholesome drinking water.
Interestingly, our latest piece of research – an EPSRC-funded GCRF project – involves developing the technology to actually deploy in lakes for decontamination purposes, and I'm working with colleagues in Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen and in the University of St Andrews to make this happen.
My wife, [Dr] Jeanette Robertson, who works in the School of Biological Sciences at Queen's, also collaborates with me, and we have been using the technology for a range of applications including water disinfection, disinfection of medical devices and development of self-sterilising surfaces for use in the food industry.
What is the best bit about your role?
I've worked briefly in industry – I was a scientific civil servant for nearly five years – and I've been an academic since 1995, and the great thing about this job is that you have so many opportunities that you just don't really get in other career paths.
Working with the students and helping train and enthuse the next generation is a great privilege and I also love the research and participating in public engagement activities.
There are also fascinating opportunities to contribute to wider societal issues and challenges. For example, I’m a member of EPSRC's Strategic Advisory Committee for Energy. This group provides advice to the council on key research and training priorities around the energy portfolio. I'm also part the high-level advisory group for the SuperGen projects, which are the big sustainable energy projects funded by EPSRC.
I have the privilege of working with some really clever and interesting colleagues here and I've found a real willingness within Queen's to work across the academic boundaries. My research has always involved more than one discipline, so I've worked closely with physicists, microbiologists, chemical engineers, mechanical engineers. Really, if you're going to solve any of society's problems, no one discipline can do it alone – it's getting these diverse teams of people together that makes this possible.
This year Queen's exceeded the carbon emissions reduction target for 2020-21 set out in the University's Carbon Management Plan ahead of schedule. What is your role in Change Management Group, and how important is collaboration between academic and non-academic staff in our journey to become a low carbon organisation?
I've been chairing the Change Management Group, which is a sub-committee of the Carbon Management Group, for a year now. The Group is there to help everybody in the University do their bit and facilitates a broad contribution of effort across the University, bringing together academic subject expertise with the expertise and contributions of all the directorates.
It's great to be able to help shape the opportunities to make an environmental impact on campus as part of the University's carbon journey.
As a member of the University, I'm very proud of Queen's carbon emissions reduction and I think it shows what we can achieve – not just around carbon management, but also in other areas of sustainability and within the social justice piece – because I think the two are very much interlinked.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
I'm a keen photographer. I don't really get to do as much as I used to, but I love doing landscape photography and taking my dog out with me.
I'm also quite keen on cinema, particularly old 1940s movies. I find film noir really fascinating and it's good because you get these being rerun from time to time in the QFT, which again was another great thing about coming to Queen's.
And I'm quite keen on 1970s New Wave music, especially the Stranglers – that wouldn't be to everyone's taste I have to admit, although my kids do love it.
What is the best advice you've ever received?
Don't ever get discouraged if the first approach you take with something doesn't work – there is always a different route to getting where you want to go. And maybe where you think you want to go to isn't actually right for you.
It was my father who gave me this advice. I didn’t do well at school and was written off as educationally subnormal while in primary school. Fortunately, my parents didn't accept what the school said about me and they later discovered that I was dyslexic.
Tell us an interesting fact about yourself
Both my parents were graduates of Queen's.
My mum was a consultant psychiatrist – one of only seven Queen's women graduates in Medicine from 1959. My dad gained his degree in 1948, which was conferred upon him by David Keir and ironically I am now based in the DKB. The Honorary Graduate at my father’s graduation ceremony was Harry Ferguson, the tractor inventor, who did his apprenticeship with my grandfather. After the ceremony my grandfather introduced my father to Harry Ferguson and Harry said to my dad, "Well Kenneth, you got your degree the easy way".
What is your favourite app?
The BBC Radio iPlayer. That or Audible, the talking book app – they're the two I use most. Radio 4 Extra is my favourite station.
What are you currently reading?
I've just finished Terry Pratchett's Good Omens, because everybody said before you watch the TV series you should read the book, and I've just started an Andrea Camilleri novel The Shape of Water. I love the Inspector Montalbano series.
What are you most proud of?
My two sons, Callum and Keir.
They're not only both great fun but also very strong and resilient kids – I'm just so proud of them.