Breaking FROntiers for advanced engineering of bespoke, functional Biopolymer COmposite materials (FROBCO)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Warwick
Department Name: WMG

Abstract

This fellowship programme will take a circular economy (CE) approach and unlock the huge potential of renewable biomass, which can be easily sourced from agriculture/aquaculture/food industry as byproducts or wastes. The biomass contains biopolymers cellulose, chitin/chitosan, starch, protein, alginate and lignin, which are valuable resources for making environmentally friendly materials. Moreover, these biopolymers have unique properties and functions, which make them highly potential in important, rapidly growing applications such as therapeutic agent delivery, tissue engineering scaffolds, biological devices, green electronics, sensing, dye and heavy metal removal, oil/water separation, and optics. However, enormous challenges exist to process biopolymers and achieve desired properties/functions cost-effectively; these valuable biomass resources have long been underutilised. This proposed ambitious and adventurous research will focus on the smart design of materials formulation and engineering process from an interdisciplinary perspective to realise the assembly of biopolymer composite materials under a single flow process. This will eventually lead to a reinvented, cost-effective engineering technology based on 3D printing to produce a diverse range of robust, biopolymer composite materials with tailored structure, properties and functionality. Due to the versatile chemistry of biopolymers for modification, the bespoke 'green' materials are expected to outperform many synthetic polymers and composites for specific applications such as tissue engineering and controlled release. The outcomes of this transformative project will not only provide fundamental knowledge leading to a completely new line of research, but also deliver ground-breaking technologies that will impact the UK's plastic industry by providing truly sustainable and high-performance options for high-end technological areas (e.g. healthcare and agriculture).

Planned Impact

ECONOMIC:
The new materials and new technologies developed from FROBCO will be highly interesting to a wide range of industry sectors, including, but not limited to:
1) The agriculture sector and biopolymer producers: For increasing applications of natural biopolymers in mainstream areas, the demand of these renewable resources as cellulose, chitin, protein and alginate will significantly increase, which need to be sourced from agriculture/food byproducts and wastes. This will help the growth of biopolymer industry and benefit the circular economy (CE) transformation.
2) Polymer processing and additive manufacturing equipment companies: The new materials manufacturing technologies developed from this project will help the equipment companies to develop next-generation instruments that are capable of producing biopolymer materials cost-effectively, which will increase their competitiveness in the market and enhance UK's leading position in manufacturing.
3) Biomaterials and plastic products companies: These companies will be highly interested in adopting the new, functional materials developed from this project so that they will have increased global competitiveness by supplying 'green' plastic solutions that are competent and competitive for new and demanding applications.
4) Health service providers and health professionals: New biomaterials and the related manufacturing technologies will enable improvement in patient treatment technologies, assist health professionals in delivering better health service, as well as to reduce the plastic biomedical wastes generated from hospitals.
The FROBCO team will engage with these companies via consultation, contract research and IP licensing for translating the results into real applications and thus contribute to wealth creation. Moreover, based on the skilled talent base and new capabilities, this research will have a strong potential in creating start-ups and joint ventures that will lead to future economic growth.

SOCIETAL:
FROBCO will bring significant impact on society in the following ways:
1) The new advanced biopolymer materials with excellent biofunctionality will provide more cost-effective solutions to tissue engineering and regenerative medicine, which will help people who suffer from tissue damage and related medical conditions to recover more quickly with less pain and have better health afterwards. Moreover, the new biocomposite can be tailored for wider, specific biomedical applications, such as drug delivery, wound healing, biomedical devices and sensors. All these will contribute to better healthcare to the UK people.
2) The uncovering of key design principles will also lead to bespoke biocomposite materials for even wider applications. For example, the novel structure and functionality of new materials can realise the controlled release of pesticide/fertilisers, contributing to sustainability in agriculture, where the excessive use and loss of these chemicals have caused serious environmental issues. Besides, the controlled release of antimicrobial or other functional agents gives chances to develop better active food packaging, reducing food wastes, which have been identified as a major factor contributing to greenhouse gas (GHG) emission and climate change.
3) This project will generate public awareness in sustainability and the CE through teaching and various public engagement and outreach activities, eventually leading to behaviour changes and the public involvement. It will also influence policy-makers and member associations for CE approaches in agriculture, providing a role model to catalyse changes in wider sectors. Moreover, through partnerships with ODA countries, this research will develop CE models for new products, benefiting a larger population in the world.

Publications

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