EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Soft Matter for Formulation and Industrial Innovation (SOFI2)

Lead Research Organisation: Durham University
Department Name: Chemistry

Abstract

Soft Matter is ubiquitous, in the form of polymers, colloids, gels, foams, emulsions, pastes, or liquid crystals; of synthetic or biological origin; as bulk materials or as thin films at interfaces. Soft Matter impinges on almost every aspect of human activity: what we eat, what we wear, the cars we drive, the medicines we take, what we use to keep clean and healthy, in sport and leisure. Soft Matter plays a role in many industrial processes including new frontiers such as digital manufacturing, regenerative medicine and personalised products. Soft Matter is complex chemically and physically with structure and properties that depend on length and time scales. Too often the formulation of soft materials has been heuristic, without the fundamental understanding that underpins predictive design, which hampers innovation and leads to problems in scale up and reformulation in response to changing regulation or customer preferences. Durham, Edinburgh and Leeds Universities set up the SOFI CDT in 2014 in response to the challenge from manufacturers across the personal care, coatings, plastics and food sectors to provide future employees with the skills to transform the design and manufacture of soft materials from an art into a science.

The dialogue continues with industrial partners, both old and new, which has resulted in this bid for a refreshed CDT in Soft Matter - SOFI2 - that reflects the evolving scientific, technological and industrial landscape. We have a new partnership with the National Formulation Centre, who will lead a training case study and contribute to the wider training programme, and with many new partners from SMEs to multinationals. We will seek to involve more small and medium-sized companies in SOFI2 by providing opportunities for them to engage in training and project supervision. SOFI2 will have increased training in biological soft matter, which has been identified as a growth area by the EPSRC and our partners, and in scale-up and manufacturing, so that our students can understand better the challenges of taking ideas from the laboratory to the customer. Social responsibility in research and innovation will be embedded throughout the training program and we will trial new ideas in participatory research where the public is involved in the creation of research projects.

Each cohort of 16 students will spend their first six months on a common training programme in science and engineering, built around case studies co-delivered with industry partners. They then select their PhD projects and join their research groups in Durham, Leeds or Edinburgh. Generic and transferable skills training continues throughout the four years, bringing the cohorts together for both academic-led and student-led activities. We aim to produce SOFI2 graduates who are business-aware and who are good citizens as well as good scientists.

The importance of Soft Matter to the UK economy cannot be understated. Industry sectors relying on Soft Matter include paints and coatings; adhesives, sealants and construction products; rubber, plastics and composite materials; pharmaceuticals and healthcare; cosmetics and personal care; household and professional care; agrochemicals; food and beverages; inks and dyes; lubricants and fuel additives; and process chemicals. A 2018 InnovateUK report estimate the formulated products sector (most of which involves Soft Matter) contributed £149 billion annually to the UK economy. The formulated products sector is undergoing a rapid transformation in response to a shift to sustainable feedstocks, environmental and regulatory pressures and personalised products. It will also be shaped in unpredictable ways by data analytics and artificial intelligence. SOFI2 will equip students with the knowledge and skills to thrive in this business environment.

Planned Impact

1. PEOPLE. The SOFI2 CDT will have varied economic and societal impacts, the greatest of which will be the students themselves. They will graduate with a broad and deep scientific education as well as an entrepreneurial mind-set combined with business awareness and communication skills. The training programme reflects the knowledge and skills identified by industry partners, the EPSRC, recent graduates and national strategies. Partners will facilitate impact through their engagement in the extensive training programme and through the co-supervision of PhD projects. Responsible Innovation is embedded throughout the training programme to instil an attitude towards research and innovation in which societal concerns and environmental impact are always to the fore. The team-working and leadership skills developed in SOFI2 (including an appreciation of the benefits that diversity brings to an organisation and how to foster an atmosphere of equality and inclusion) will enable our graduates to take on leadership roles in industry where they can, in turn, influence the thinking of their teams.

2. PROJECTS. The PhD research projects themselves are impact pathways. Approximately half the projects will be co-sponsored by external partners and will be aligned to scientific challenges faced by the partner. Even projects funded entirely by the EPSRC/Universities will have an industrial co-supervisor who can provide advice on development of impact. The impact workshops and Entrepreneur in Residence will additionally help students to develop impact from their research, while at the same time developing the mind-set that sees innovation in invention.

3. PUBLIC. The public benefits from innovation that comes from the research in the CDT. It also benefits from the training of a generation of researchers trained in RI who seek out the input of stakeholders in the development of products and processes. The public benefits from the outreach activities that enable them to understand better the science behind contemporary technological developments - and hence to make more informed decisions about how they lead their lives. The younger generations benefit from the excitement of science that might attract them to higher education and careers in STEM subjects.

4. PARTNERSHIPS. SOFI2 involves collaborative research with >25 external partners from large multinationals to small start-ups. In addition to the results of sponsored projects and the possibility of recruiting SOFI2 students, companies benefit from access to training resources, sharing of best practice in RI and EDI, access to the knowledge of the SOFI2 academics and sharing of expertise with other partners in the SOFI2 network. This networking is of particular benefit to SMEs and we have an SME strategy to facilitate engagement of SMEs with SOFI2. SME representation on the Management and Strategic Advisory Boards will support the SME strategy.

CPI/NFC is a key partner both for delivery of training and to connect SOFI2 research, students and staff to a wide network of companies in the formulated products sector.

The unusual partnership with the Leverhulme Research Centre on Forensic Science may lead to a stronger scientific underpinning of forensic evidence with positive impacts on the legal process and the pursuit of justice.

5. PRODUCTS. Partner companies identify areas of fundamental and applied science of interest to them with the knowledge that advances in these areas will help them to overcome technological challenges that will lead to better products or new markets. It is an expectation that scientific discoveries made within the CDT will drive new products, new markets and potentially new companies. SOFI2 CDT seeks also to develop innovative training materials, for example, in RI and in data analytics and AI (in collaboration with the Alan Turing Institute), from which other CDTs and training organisations can benefit.

Publications

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Studentship Projects

Project Reference Relationship Related To Start End Student Name
EP/S023631/1 01/10/2019 31/03/2028
2287259 Studentship EP/S023631/1 01/09/2018 31/08/2022 Lucas Le Nagard
2286898 Studentship EP/S023631/1 01/10/2018 30/09/2022 Jack Hocking
2355973 Studentship EP/S023631/1 16/09/2019 30/09/2023 Samuel Colin Musson
2355978 Studentship EP/S023631/1 16/09/2019 30/09/2023 Nicola Jane Haynes
2356026 Studentship EP/S023631/1 16/09/2019 30/09/2023 Jack Parker
2355963 Studentship EP/S023631/1 16/09/2019 30/09/2023 Reece MacDiarmid
2356031 Studentship EP/S023631/1 16/09/2019 30/09/2023 Charles Tkaczyk
2368474 Studentship EP/S023631/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Eugenia Delacou
2357985 Studentship EP/S023631/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Alex Gresty
2360674 Studentship EP/S023631/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Gerome Vancuylenberg
2362414 Studentship EP/S023631/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Phoebe Lowy
2360445 Studentship EP/S023631/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Joseph Bradley
2360475 Studentship EP/S023631/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Dominic Corbett
2360263 Studentship EP/S023631/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Laura Confalonieri
2360221 Studentship EP/S023631/1 01/10/2019 30/09/2023 Daniel Williams