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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/X014738/1
Title: Modelling the rheology of biopolymers and sustainable food systems: exploring new challenges for soft matter research
Principal Investigator: Ilg, Dr P
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
ETH Zurich
Department: Mathematics and Statistics
Organisation: University of Reading
Scheme: Overseas Travel Grants (OTGS)
Starts: 01 January 2024 Ends: 31 May 2024 Value (£): 49,420
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Complex fluids & soft solids
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Related Grants:
Panel History:  
Summary on Grant Application Form
From sustainable food systems and meat replacements to cosmetics and healthcare products, biopolymers play an absolutely crucial part for our present and future daily lives. While transferring our knowledge from soft matter science and synthetic polymers to biopolymers and food systems has so far been concentrated on equilibrium properties, this project explores the possibilities and challenges for tackling their nonequilibrium dynamics and flow behaviour (rheology).

Since processing and extrusion are integral parts in the preparation of food systems and sustainable food is often delicate to process, progress in our understanding and modelling will help to prepare better and healthier products.

On the other hand, the difficulties encountered in successfully modelling the rheology of such food systems will allow us to formulate and focus on novel challenges for basic research in soft matter science.

For concreteness, we will focus on methyl cellulose as one of the most widely used biopolymers. Methyl cellulose is a cellulose derivative that is water soluble and often used as a gelling agent. The gel is formed by a network structure of methyl cellulose fibrils. This network is sensitive to temperature, allowing the system to flow much more easily at lower temperatures. During food processing and extrusion of methyl cellulose, the polymers experience a history of complicated strong and weak deformations as well as significant temperature variations. These conditions are rather different than the standard rheological tests in controlled-flow rheometers at constant temperatures. Since most synthetic polymers do not form complicated structures, the information gained from this test is often sufficient to formulate models of polymer rheology that work successfully also in more complicated situations. It is, however, far from obvious that the same holds true for biopolymers, due to the more complicated, flow- and temperature- sensitive structures they form.

With this project, we want to explore the progress that can be made in modelling the rheology of methyl cellulose under conditions relevant for food processing. Now is a good time for attempting this task due to recent advances in soft matter science with regard to modelling, simulation and coarse graining.

Starting with the nonequilibrium computer simulations of a detailed model of methyl cellulose, we first follow standard approaches to study shear-induced structure formation and the relation to rheological characteristics. Using modern approaches to nonequilibrium thermodynamics, we will consistently coarse grain the computationally expensive molecular model. Importantly, the coarse grained model contains internal variables that give important information on the nonequilibrium microstructure relevant for flow properties. The coarse grained model will then be studied under different conditions, like complex flow fields and varying temperature. The theoretical works will be complemented by experiments on methyl cellulose. Both, standard rheometers and in-house extruders will be used to study their flow behaviour. Comparing theoretical and experimental findings will allow us to assess achievements and shortcomings of this approach. From analysing the shortcomings, we want to identify novel challenges for basic research in soft matter science that could become an exciting and fruitful focus of future work.

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Organisation Website: http://www.rdg.ac.uk