Realising Functional Cellulosic Bio-based Composites

Lead Research Organisation: University of Bristol
Department Name: Aerospace Engineering


The worldwide transition from the use of oil-based to more sustainable feedstocks for plastics is underway. This transition is due to dwindling oil stocks and a realisation that current levels of the use of this resource is no longer sustainable. More sustainable sources for materials use exist in the form of cellulose from plants. This material is a very versatile polymer and is in fact the most utilised material worldwide. For the last 20+ years I have been researching the structure-property relationships of cellulose and am ideally placed to play a key role in the transition to renewable materials. Nature makes use of cellulose to good effect. Being intrinsically strong and stiff means that cellulose fibres, per weight, can compete mechanically with most synthetic alternatives such as glass. In nature's most prevalent natural composite - wood - cellulose forms the basis of its outstanding structural performance. All our attempts to replicate the composite performance of wood and plants have fallen short, and this fellowship seeks to address these issues, while also using the intrinsic properties of plant fibres and wood themselves. The proposed research aims to do this in the context of both natural and synthetic materials, adding functionality to the composites, while also addressing in a cross-cutting sense the sustainability credentials of the materials and structures proposed.

Planned Impact

The pathways to impact for my fellowship will be through the key areas of knowledge, society people and the economy.

Knowledge: This fellowship will allow me to build on my established career in cellulose and renewable materials to further grow an internationally leading group in functional materials. Research will focus on fundamental research into sustainable functional composites leading to high impact publications in leading journals, and attendance at influential and significant scientific meetings, growing the reputation of UK science in this area. In addition to attending meetings, a workshop is planned, showcasing the very best science in this area, building a community of people engaged in this research. Industrial translation of knowledge, from laboratory to application, will be enhanced by the engagement of a number of industrial companies, and the National Composites Centre, with whom a roadmap will be developed to assist in the production of a stage-gated application to the funding councils (InnovateUK/EPSRC) towards the end of the fellowship. Other routes to both dissemination and translation of knowledge are through networks (eg. KTNs) and the setting up of a start-up company.

Society: There are clear benefits to society through the development of more sustainable composite materials. The applications that will be developed, including the organic based composite solar cells, will have benefits to society in terms of cleaner energy. The lightweighting agenda of the fellowship could result in reduced CO2 emissions for transport, and better solutions for end-of-life use of the materials. A number of public engagement activities are planned throughout the fellowship, including science cafes, art displays

People: The researchers working on the fellowship will benefit from the research through the development of their careers, and the fact that this will lead them into new groundbreaking areas of endeavour. With the adventurous programme of work they will stand-out from other researchers working in this area. Other beneficiaries will be minority groups, in particular BME students intersected with gender, with whom a very targeted plan of engagement is planned. This will ensure that a very wide range of people from lots of different backgrounds are engaged with the research.

Economy: The fellowship will generate income from the invested funds through the spin-out companies, IP, industrial support and additional applications made to this the take-up of technology from the supporting companies will provide a source of income for the UK economy.