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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/Y003667/1
Title: Thermally Responsive Supports for Enhanced Efficiency in PET Depolymerisation
Principal Investigator: Wood, Professor J
Other Investigators:
Dove, Professor AP
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Dupont Teijin Films (UK) Limited Pennsylvania State University Siemens Healthineers
Department: Chemical Engineering
Organisation: University of Birmingham
Scheme: Standard Research
Starts: 01 April 2024 Ends: 31 March 2027 Value (£): 923,700
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Catalysis & Applied Catalysis Design of Process systems
Materials Characterisation Materials Synthesis & Growth
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
No relevance to Underpinning Sectors
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
05 Jul 2023 EPSRC Physical Sciences Prioritisation Panel- July 2023 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
There is an urgent need to devise processes for recycling plastics, with an estimated 460 million metric tonnes of plastics being utilised worldwide in 2019 alone, of which only 10% is recycled globally, the remainder going to incineration, landfill or export. Burning of polymers contribute to CO2 production, causing global warming, and pollution of rivers and oceans occurs through discarding to the environment. Current mechanical and thermal recycling techniques can be used to produce lower grade products such as clothing, insulation, garden and road furniture, but these have inferior colour or mechanical properties, in comparison to virgin polymer, necessitating chemical recycling to produce virgin monomer.

The principal polymer selected for study in this proposal is PET, with its wide industrial and consumer applications in bottles, packaging and clothing. In the USA 30 % of PET is currently recycled, in the EU the figure is 52 %, whilst world demand for PET resin is ~23.5 million tonnes and production capacity ~30.3 million tonnes, making a potentially large feedstock for recycling. Virgin PET resin has a much higher value at £1084/tonne compared with used PET bottles priced at £222.50/tonne, making chemical recycling to produce the virgin polymer the more economically attractive route than mechanical or thermal recycling. Chemical recycling of PET can follow a number of routes including reaction with alcohols, glycols, amines and ammonia, sometimes catalysed by basic materials like sodium bicarbonate, or more recently developed ionic organocatalysts or metal salt/organic base dual catalysts. However potential scale up for industrial production is hampered by the difficulties of separating the catalyst from the product mixture and efficient recycling. Also, there is a need to isolate and purify the product BHET from a mixture which may contain contaminants from the polymer, including dyes and additives.

This proposal aims to create solutions to these problems by developing supported catalysts and separation technologies to enable a scaled-up process for PET depolymerisation, which could potentially be deployed industrially. Catalyst supports will be developed based on thermally responsive polymers, which can be solubilised to contact the reacting mixture, or solidified via simple temperature cycling to aid recovery by filtration. Key considerations will include understanding the reaction kinetics of the system, including any mass transport resistances, and optimisation of reaction conditions to achieve an attractive rate of reaction. We will experiment with polymer structures to find the optimal catalyst/support combination. In addition to catalyst recovery by temperature cycling, we will study recovery of BHET product via membrane separation. Strategies will include testing of commercial membranes and development of mixed matrix membranes incorporating zeolites to enhance the permeate flow.

The proposed technologies will provide more attractive and commercially viable solutions for chemical recycling. In order to realise the benefits of the research, we have engaged Project Partners from across the recycling and polymer production sectors including Dupont Teijin Films and Siemens PSE, and academic collaborator Pennsylvania State University. They will provide, or advise on, samples for depolymerisation, provide software, technical consultation on the work plan, access to facilities and advise on routes to commercialisation and impact delivery as outlined in their letters of support.

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