Angela Murray has pioneered a method to turn base dust into precious metals, and has formed a spin-off to exploit it
For some PhD students, a doctorate is a long and lonely trudge that ends with a thesis destined to lie untouched in the depths of the university library.
But Angela Murray, studying for a PhD in chemical engineering at the University of Birmingham, discovered how to refine dust from roads into precious platinum, rhodium and palladium, then started a spin-off company - Roads to Riches - to exploit it. Alongside the financial returns, her scientific form of alchemy could bring environmental benefits by reducing platinum mining.
"I was excited about doing a PhD, but I didn't expect it to be commercial," Ms Murray said. "In the space of 18 months, I've gone from being a student in the lab to developing business plans and attracting £250,000 in funding. I get paid to run a company and do something I love."
An unusual CV may explain some of her success in bidding for business and research grants. Ms Murray spent two years as a holiday rep in Spain, Morocco and Egypt after studying at York and Newcastle universities.
"If you can sell the idea of going on some expensive trip, you can sell a business idea you love. The communication skills have been hugely valuable. Before people like the project, they have to like the people involved," she said.
After her stint as a holiday rep, Ms Murray went to Birmingham and worked under Lynne Macaskie, a professor in the School of Biosciences, the winner of a Royal Society innovation award for converting waste into energy. Ms Murray looked at refining existing processes and applying them to the platinum group metals shaken off catalytic converters as vehicles drive along roads.
The project produces a metal-rich concentrate from the dust, which can be smelted to recover the material.
The plan is for Roads to Riches to process road dust for local authorities normally responsible for collection, either hiring out its services and selling on the metal itself or giving councils a percentage. With only three nations producing the metals - South Africa, Canada and Russia - the project could support the UK's resource security.
While the quantities of precious metal are tiny - a motorway might produce one part per million of dust - the values are high. Rhodium is worth about £90 per gram.
"People laugh and say it can't be worth it," said Ms Murray, who is now completing her PhD as a Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council enterprise fellow. "But you're at the level of a low-grade mine. And in mining, you have to go deep underground, it's intensive and it's environmentally damaging. Our process means that it is sitting on the surface, just waiting to be collected."