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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/P016405/1
Title: Novel Membrane Catalytic Reactor for Waste Polylactic Acid Recycling and Valorisation
Principal Investigator: Wood, Professor J
Other Investigators:
Mattia, Professor D Plucinski, Dr P Patterson, Dr DA
Jones, Professor MD
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
NatureWorks LLC
Department: Chemical Engineering
Organisation: University of Birmingham
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 26 June 2017 Ends: 25 September 2020 Value (£): 740,016
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Catalysis & Applied Catalysis Design of Process systems
Reactor Engineering Separation Processes
Waste Management
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Manufacturing Chemicals
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
01 Dec 2016 Engineering Prioritisation Panel Meeting 1 and 2 December 2016 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
The disposal of plastic packaging represents a significant environmental problem; although recycling of plastics has increased in recent years, current recycling methods are mainly mechanical or chemical techniques that result in lower grade second life products and much material is also still disposed of to landfill. The introduction of plastics produced from biological sources such as plant derived sugars has potential to reduce reliance on fossil derived sources and decrease emissions of greenhouse gases associated with manufacture. Polylactide has emerged as one of the most promising biorenewable and biodegradable polymers which has uses in packaging, textile and biomedical applications. However the lack of a reliable method for recycling polylactide could limit its widespread application and market growth. A significant opportunity therefore exists to develop a process to depolymerise/degrade commodity PLA to produce value-added small molecules, such as lactate esters, via routes which have not previously been developed. Such molecules could be recycled to make new PLA or other value added chemicals, including solvents, fragrances and plasticizers.

We propose to address the above problems by developing a catalytic process for degradation/depolymerisation of PLA, integrated with a membrane separation to selectively isolate small molecule products within a specified molecular weight cut off range, as valuable products. Firstly the catalytic part of the process will be developed, building on previous work by Jones on salalen homogeneous catalysts, and including a work plan to select and design the best metal-support combinations to achieve a high conversion of PLA. Secondly, commercial membranes will be screened for the separation of product molecules, which will provide the necessary data to enable design and fabrication of bespoke membranes for a particular molecular weight cut off. We then aim to coat catalysts on to the membranes, so as to avoid the potential difficulties of working with, separating and reusing slurry catalysts. The tested catalyst and membrane designs will then be scaled up. A larger scale (1 litre) reactor will be constructed for carrying out crossflow membrane tests. The results of the studies will be used to develop kinetic models of the reaction and diffusion models for the membrane pore structure. A programme of activities for delivery of impact to the academic and industrial communities and the general public has been devised.

The work is expected to deliver new catalysts, supports and membrane designs and performance data. Laboratory scale up data will be used to determine how well these techniques work together and to deliver a process design that could be deployed to take the technology in to industrial production.

The proposed technologies are expected to deliver a number of potential benefits including reduced reliance on fossil derived plastics, potential to increase the market for bio-derived polymers, the production of value added chemicals such as ethyl lactate, novel catalyst and membrane designs, UK held intellectual property and patents.

Key Findings
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Potential use in non-academic contexts
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Further Information:  
Organisation Website: http://www.bham.ac.uk