British university plots green route to polymer production

Scientists at the University of York are to lead a new government-backed research project to investigate the potential conversion of waste biomass and waste carbon dioxide into safer and more sustainable raw materials. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has awarded the University’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence (GCCE) £3 million to develop industrially viable routes to replacements for petrochemical-derived polymers using waste biomass, such as orange peel, pine needles and sawdust.

The grant was one of the just four worth a total of £10.3 million awarded by EPSRC for research in the area of Materials Substitution for Safety, Security and Sustainability. Industry partners will add a further £2.8 million of investment. The team at York will work with scientists specialising in polymer chemistry and process engineering at Imperial College and in process intensification at Newcastle University

The five-year EPSRC project will also develop the chemistry and engineering required to transform waste biomass and carbon dioxide from agricultural and forestry waste into commodity polymers, specifically: polyalkanes, polyethers, polyesters, polycarbonates and polyurethanes.

The GCCE’s Director Professor James Clark and its newly appointed Professor of Green Chemistry Professor Michael North together with Dr Thomas Farmer will head the project. They will work in collaboration with industrial partners including Lotte Chemical UK, Econic Technologies, Plaxica and Bayer.

GCCE researchers have extensive expertise in the extraction of chemicals from waste biomass, using energy efficient techniques such as microwave processing and supercritical fluid extraction and in carbon dioxide utilisation. They can also use the University’s Biorenewable Development Centre (BDC) to scale processes up to pilot plant scale.

The processes associated with isolating materials from biomass and converting them into polymers will require energy and other chemicals, whose production will generate carbon dioxide. The scientists use lifecycle analysis to determine total carbon dioxide emissions associated with polymer production from both petrochemical and biomass sources. Comparison of the data will provide a quantitative understanding of the merits of the latter and illustrate which aspects of the synthesis are responsible for most of the carbon dioxide emissions and focusing efforts on minimising them.


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