UK Researchers Tackle a Transition to Sustainable Materials

In early November, the Biomimicry Institute’s Launchpad Program Manager Dr. Dave Hutchins had the privilege of representing the Biomimicry Institute on the advisory board of the Bio-derived and bio-inspired advanced materials for sustainable industries research project. This EPSRC program grant, also known as VALUED, brings together the best UK academics and key industrial partners in the development of a new supply chain for sustainable materials and applications.

Their ambitious goal is to transition from petroleum derived materials to bio-based materials, focused on cellulose, chitosan, and lignin. They are considering the entire lifecycle of these materials, from production and processing to end of life, and doing it over a broad cross-section of applications and industrial sectors. Many of the researchers involved co-authored this article, The Sustainable Materials Roadmap, that serves as an excellent primer to the work that will be completed over this five year effort. In it they present ongoing research, progress, and remaining challenges in sustainable materials.

The gathering at Imperial College served as the inaugural meeting of the research team and the meetings were packed with updates and early findings from the various groups. Here is a small sampling of highlights from the inspiring presentations:

Prof Jason Hallet’s group talked about one of the key challenges in biorefining, the initial separation of lignocellulosic feedstock into separate components. They have been successful in using ionic liquid solvents in biomass fractionation and are using nuclear magnetic resonance to characterize the plant components at a molecular scale.

Prof Magda Titirici, who leads the project, talked about her group’s work in hydrothermal carbonization and applications of these materials such as carbon fixation and energy storage. They also showed their progress in creating carbon fiber from lignin with commercially viable performance and cost.

Profs Steve Eichhorn and Koon-Yang Lee presented their work in advanced composites, utilizing a variety of fibers and techniques. We already know that nature frequently employs composite materials, and these researchers are taking it a step further with biomimetic features like self-healing and honeycomb structures.

And these were among many biomimetic innovations within the VALUED project. We heard about research into bio-inspired fuel cell catalysts, where they are replacing platinum and palladium with nature’s go-to catalyst: iron. By placing single iron atoms in a carbon matrix, they are able to achieve the same effects with a much more common metal and less toxic chemistry.

We also learned about Prof Silvia Vignolini’s groundbreaking work in structural color. Her group is using self-assembling cellulose nanocrystals to create brilliant color, just as they found on the pollia fruit. Our recent Ray of Hope Prize winner, the startup Sparxell, is a spinout from this lab.

We were very pleased to see all of this work in emulation of biological strategies, but it was also encouraging to see their careful approach within life’s principles. They are committed to being resourceful with materials and finding innovative ways to incorporate circularity. They are striving to use life-friendly chemistry, with a small subset of elements processed at room temperature and in water. They are incorporating life cycle analysis across the entire project, and taking it deeper with both a techno-economic analysis as well as a social LCA. They are doing this all with a multidisciplinary approach and a commitment to include biologists at the design table. We look forward to our continued involvement and are excited to share all of the amazing breakthroughs that come from this project.

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