SusAgriChem - Sustainable Formulation of Agri-Chemicals via Dynamic Molecular Interfaces

Lead Research Organisation: University College London
Department Name: Chemical Engineering


Modern specialty chemicals are advanced multi-component systems that can contain immiscible fluids (e.g., water and organics), active ingredients, and several agents (e.g., surfactants) used to stabilise the product, extend its shelf lifetime, facilitate the application by the End Users, and deliver the active ingredients to the target. The formulation of such products is a demanding activity carried out via extensive trial and error experimental campaigns. Because personal experience is an important aspect of the process and even subtle changes in composition (e.g., in salt content) strongly affect performance, formulation is often perceived as an art, rather than a reproducible science. Further, new active ingredients are often introduced to the market while new regulations periodically limit the usage of existing chemical products towards reducing the environmental impact. Therefore, it is desirable to develop predictive capabilities to relate the composition of a product to the performance of its active ingredient. SusAgriChem seeks to develop such predictive capabilities via a molecular-level understanding of competitive interfacial effects.

SusAgriChem focuses on the agri-chemical sector, one of the Eight Great Technologies identified by the UK government; indeed, food production is the largest single manufacturing sector in the UK. Reducing the amount of herbicide wasted is one of the Sustainable Development Goals as it will help achieve sustainable agriculture. SusAgriChem will exploit three enormous opportunities: (1) reduce the environmental impact of herbicides supporting the introduction of new environmentally friendly formulations, with an estimated cost in research and development of approximately $500M per new active ingredient; (2) improve the adhesion of emulsion droplets on weed leaves from the current 5% of the applied product to 10%, which would halve the environmental impact; this will be achieved without compromising the stability of the emulsion, the ability of the active ingredient to penetrate the leaves, and the ease of application of the product at the point of use; (3) revolutionise the formulation of new products, which will enable the specialty chemicals sector to remain at the cutting edge, creating new highly skilled jobs, which is extremely important in the current socio economic landscape - the specialty chemicals sector being essential for the UK economy, where in 2016 it contributed £12.1B, employing 99,000 people, especially in the after Covid-19 era.

SusAgriChem seeks to change the current state of the art, by implementing a multi-disciplinary fundamental research project in close synergy between academia and industry. The partnership between UCL and Innospec will allow us to (1) develop fundamental science that will benefit the academic community at large; (2) apply the fundamental research to the development of new products; and (3) positively impact the formulation of other products (e.g., inkjet printing) in which surface active compounds are used to optimise multiple competing properties.

To enhance the impact of the fundamental research conducted, this project will train two Ph.D. students in the multi-disciplinary activities related to formulation. The partnership with industry will enable the two post-doctoral researchers to develop transferable skills including entrepreneurial insights and commercial acumen. The results will be published in peer-reviewed journal articles, presented at international conferences, and used in our undergraduate and post-graduate teaching. The results will also be disseminated to the wide public, including pre-university students, via our outreach programmes and via the publication of dissemination material that targets primary schools.
Description Innospec 
Organisation Innospec Inc
Country United States 
Sector Private 
PI Contribution The academics bring modeling and experimental capabilities that are complementary to those available at the company. In particular, atomistic and coarse grained modeling, as well as surface characterisation protocols.
Collaborator Contribution The industrial partner has shared chemicals, experimental data, and performance data. The industrial partner has provided training, and has been strongly involved in the research design.
Impact So far, we have a few abstracts submitted to a conference.
Start Year 2021
Description Institute of Applied Surfactant Research, University of Oklahoma 
Organisation University of Oklahoma
Country United States 
Sector Academic/University 
PI Contribution The modeling results have been presented to this consortium meeting, which brings together 8 companies operating in a varierty of sectors, from the energy to the personal care. The approaciation that simulation insights can be beneficial for formulating new products is stimulating new research ideas.
Collaborator Contribution Ideas are shared, with the possible outcome of including the structure of bio-derived surfactants in future formulations.
Impact A presentation was given at the IASR meeting in November 2021.
Start Year 2020
Description Frequent interactions with Innospec 
Form Of Engagement Activity A formal working group, expert panel or dialogue
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach International
Primary Audience Industry/Business
Results and Impact The team meets regularly (every 3 months) with Innospec to illustrate the results and to align the research with the needs of the agrichemicals sector
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2021,2022