Switchable Polymer Manufacturing Delivering Sustainable Products

Lead Research Organisation: University of Oxford
Department Name: Oxford Chemistry


In the UK, the plastic industry alone employs >170,000 people and has an annual sale turnover of >£23.5 billion, it is also one of the top 10 UK exports. Worldwide polymer production volumes exceed 300 Mt/annum, with CAGR of 5-10%. Today almost all polymers are sourced from oi/gas and are neither chemically recycled nor biodegradable. Existing polymer manufacturing plants are optimized for a single product and because of the very high capital expenditure required to build plants their lifetimes must be as long as possible. One drawback of existing processes designed for a single product is that they hinder innovation and slow the introduction of step-change products. In this proposal a new manufacturing process allows monomer mixtures to be selectively polymerized to selectively deliver completely new types of sustainable materials. The process requires just one reactor which is re-configured to dial-up multiple combinations of desirable products with controllable structures and compositions. This fellowship allows time for detailed investigation and development of the manufacturing concept as well as new research into product applications in three high-tech, high-value sectors, namely as recyclable and biodegradable thermoplastic elastomers, shape-memory plastics for robotics and delivery agents for biomolecule therapies. The research is underpinned by the efficient use of renewable resources, such as carbon dioxide and bio-derived monomers, and the polymers are designed for efficient end-of-life recycling and biodegradation. By applying existing commodity monomers, such as propene oxide and maleic anhydride, industrialization and translation of the results is accelerated. The fellowship allows the PI to learn new skills and build collaborations which will be realized through regular sabbaticals and secondments. It also allows the close industrial collaboration and oversight to re-configure polymer manufacturing to produce sustainable, high value materials to met existing and future industrial needs.

Planned Impact

There is intense interest and pressure to deliver more sustainable and profitable polymer products and manufacturing processes both at a national and international scale. This fellowship builds upon exciting scientific discoveries that allow resource efficient manufacturing of new polymers. The fellowship will investigate these discoveries, understand the underpinning theories and translate the research to implement industrially. Its goal is to deliver new manufacturing methods, compatible with Industry 4.0 and additive manufacturing, which are rapidly responsive to changing consumer needs and which are flexible. It applies selective catalysis to produce polymers from commodity monomers and waste renewable resources, such as carbon dioxide. The polymers are designed for recycling and biodegradation, indeed the research factors in detailed understanding of the science underpinning recycling and decomposition. The new polymers are targeted a range of high-value applications including recyclable and degradable thermoplastic elastomers, polymers for soft robotics and the targeted cellular delivery of sensitive biomolecule therapies.
The fellowship provides dedicated time and resources to the PI to lead this field of science and to train a new generation of researchers. She will use the time to address the detailed research goals, to publish and present the results to other experts in both industry and academic science (open access) and to explain the broader issues to experts in government, the media and to the general public. She will also regularly work on secondment into industry, including with Covestro, DSM, SCG Chemical and econic technologies, as well as with academic laboratories expert in Chemical Biology (Hagan Bayley, Oxford Chemistry), Robotics (Jonathan Rossiter, Bristol Engineering) and Elastomers (Marc Hillmyer, Minnesota).
The pathway to economic impacts and commercialization will be managed by regular meetings of the industry advisory board (Covestro, DSM, SCG Chemical and Econic technologies) and by networking to directly engage other relevant businesses. The research has the potential to impact polymer manufacturing and products relevant to the automotive, healthcare, consumer products and robotics industries. The fellow already has significant experience of inventing solutions to industrial problems and a strong track record in generation and licensing of intellectual property. She is also the founder of a UK SME specializing in catalysts allowing carbon dioxide utilization. This established career fellowship allows development and expansion of these entrepreneurial and industrial activities so as to maximise impact and revenue in the UK.
Academic impacts include the development of fundamental and translational science relevant to the disciplines of catalysis, polymer chemistry and materials science. Key outcomes from the fellowship will include high impact publications in peer reviewed journals and regular presentations at university/industry seminars, national meetings and international conferences. The PI will also use the fellowship to promote the broader field of sustainable polymers through activities including international conference organization, guest editorship of journals to highlight the issues and review articles/book chapters to allow greater education in the field. There are a range of potential economic, social and environmental impacts from this science and they address high profile contemporary issues such as plastic waste, resource utilization, modernization of commodity goods manufacture, healthcare and care for an aging population. Given the wide spread of applications and impacts communication and debate with a range of audiences is essential. The fellowship will provide time for Charlotte Williams to advocate on behalf of sustainable polymers and present her vision of research futures to government, senior leaders, investors, the media and the general public.


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