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Waste Not, Want Not: Scientists Plot Green Route to Polymer Production

Scientists at the University of York are to lead a new Government-backed research project to investigate the potential conversion of waste biomass and waste carbon dioxide into safer and more sustainable raw materials.

by University of York
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The University of York has received £3 million to develop industrially viable routes to replacements for petrochemically derived polymers using waste biomass, such as orange peel, pine needles and sawdust.Image credit: Rasbak, Wikimedia CommonsThe Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has awarded the University’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence (GCCE) £3 million to develop industrially viable routes to replacements for petrochemically derived polymers using waste biomass, such as orange peel, pine needles and sawdust.

The grant was one of the just four worth a total of £10.3 million awarded by EPSRC for research in the area of Materials Substitution for Safety, Security and Sustainability.  Industry partners will add a further £2.8 million of investment. The team at York will work with scientists specialising in polymer chemistry and process engineering at Imperial College and in process intensification at Newcastle University

Polymers have many applications in everyday life including: medical, transport, electrical, construction and packaging. The dependence on petrochemicals for their production has environmental and economic risks as supplies of crude oil become exhausted. The challenge is to develop new processes for polymer production using renewable resources that do not compete with food production.

The five-year EPSRC project will also develop the chemistry and engineering required to transform waste biomass and carbon dioxide from agricultural and forestry waste into commodity polymers, specifically: polyalkanes, polyethers, polyesters, polycarbonates and polyurethanes.

The GCCE’s Director Professor James Clark and its newly appointed Professor of Green Chemistry Professor Michael North together with Dr Thomas Farmer will head the project. They will work in collaboration with industrial partners including Lotte Chemical UK Ltd, Econic Technologies Ltd, Plaxica Ltd and Bayer AG. The project’s launch coincides with the GCCE’s move into new purpose built accommodation in the Department of Chemistry at York.

Professor Clark said: “Plastics, and the polymers that make them, represent one of the greatest challenges for sustainable development since they are almost entirely sourced from non-renewable resources but are ubiquitous in modern life.  By bringing together Michael North’s expertise in carbon dioxide chemistry with the engineering skills of partners at Imperial College and Newcastle, and the core expertise in renewable resources and clean synthesis of the Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence, we can tackle this major societal challenge.”

Minister for Science and Universities, David Willetts said: “As one of the eight great technologies of the future, Advanced Materials will ensure safer and more sustainable development of resources to boost the capability of UK manufacturing. This investment in research will help keep the UK ahead in the global race for exciting manufacturing innovations.”

GCCE researchers have extensive expertise in the extraction of chemicals from waste biomass, using energy efficient techniques such as microwave processing and supercritical fluid extraction and in carbon dioxide utilization. They can also use the University’s Biorenewable Development Centre (BDC) to scale processes up to pilot plant scale.

The processes associated with isolating materials from biomass and converting them into polymers will require energy and other chemicals, whose production will generate carbon dioxide. The scientists use lifecycle analysis to determine total carbon dioxide emissions associated with polymer production from both petrochemical and biomass sources. Comparison of the data will provide a quantitative understanding of the merits of the latter and illustrate which aspects of the synthesis are responsible for most of the carbon dioxide emissions and focusing efforts on minimising them.