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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/Y025008/1
Title: Co-creating a digital platform for the rapid development of sustainable polymer products
Principal Investigator: Windows-Yule, Dr C R K
Other Investigators:
Dove, Professor AP Jenkins, Dr MJ Ingram, Dr A
Jangi, Dr M M Kokalova Wheldon, Professor T Wood, Professor J
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
AquaPak Polymers Ltd Siemens Healthineers
Department: Chemical Engineering
Organisation: University of Birmingham
Scheme: Standard Research - NR1
Starts: 01 April 2024 Ends: 31 March 2027 Value (£): 624,188
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Complex fluids & soft solids Design of Process systems
Materials Synthesis & Growth
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Manufacturing
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
25 Jul 2023 EPSRC Interview panel A - Prosperity Partnership early-stage collaborations Announced
28 Jun 2023 Prosperity Partnerships: Early Stage Collaborations Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
Context and Long-term Goal

Plastic waste is one of the great, global challenges facing society today. At present, limited end-of-life options mean that a significant majority of plastics are either dumped, landfilled, or incinerated, thus also contributing significantly to the wider climate crisis. The mission of UK-based SME Aquapak is to help facilitate the shift to a less polluting world, through the manufacture of novel polymer products which are both biodegradable and recyclable, yet maintain - or even exceed - the functionality of conventional plastics.

The complexity of the twin-screw extrusion process used by Aquapak - which involves solid, liquid, and gaseous phases, evolving rheologies, and complex chemical kinetics - means conventional, empirical models are entirely inadequate. As such, scale-up and optimisation of these systems is a time-, cost-, and labour-intensive process, and the time to market for new products is considerable. The goal of the present project is to alleviate these issues through the co-creation of a new, digital approach to development, scale-up and optimisation. Through this approach, we will help widen and expedite the adoption of Aquapak's products and thus, in the long term, play a small but significant role in reducing plastic waste, and thus helping to fight the wider climate crisis.

Project Aims and Objectives

Due to the aforementioned complexity of Aquapak's primary process, a diversity of tools, skills and expertise is required to achieve our aims. To this end, we have assembled an interdisciplinary team of chemists, physicists, mechanical engineers and chemical engineers with expertise in nuclear and optical imaging, hydrodynamic and chemical kinetic modelling, spectroscopic analysis, and diverse machine-learning and artificial intelligence methods. Utilising these tools, we will:

(1) Through the application of diverse experimental techniques - including x-ray and neutron diffraction, positron emission particle tracking, IR and Raman spectroscopy, hot-stage and scanning electron microscopy, and flash differential scanning calorimetry - gain a uniquely detailed, holistic understanding of Aquapak's twin-screw extrusion process, gaining direct insight into the dynamic, kinetic, and structural evolution of their products, and the dependency thereof on key process parameters.

(2) Using the data from (1) as a basis, develop quantitatively accurate simulation models, incorporating both the dynamics and chemical kinetics of the process.

(3) Using the models from (2), coupled to evolutionary algorithms developed by the applicants, develop a fully-automated workflow for the optimisation of Aquapak's processes so as to maximise throughput, scale up production and enhance efficiency.

(4) To develop new products with enhanced functionality, applying the optimisation strategies of (3) to minimise the time from laboratory-scale testing to commercial-scale production.

Applications and Benefits

Through the development and adoption of a genuinely unique, digitally-driven approach to process optimisation and scale-up, enhanced by experimental methodologies and AI tools unique to the University of Birmingham, Aquapak stand to become world-leaders in the production of planet-friendly plastic products, placing the UK at the forefront of a vitally-important, burgeoning field. Thanks to the widespread desire for companies across the globe to enhance the sustainability of their products, Aquapak - and thus the wider UK economy - stand to gain significant inward investment.

The future success of this partnership between two Birmingham-based institutions also stands to derive benefits on a local level, through the creation of secure, high-quality jobs in a region where 59.6% of households are considered to be deprived.

Finally, by creating better end-of-life options for plastics, the project stands to elicit genuine impact on the global scale by helping to address the plastic waste crisis.

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