iCAST Directors to lead new Sustainable Chemicals and Materials Manufacturing Research Hub

The University of Oxford is leading a major UK Government investment in research to improve the sustainability of chemical and polymer production. The Sustainable Chemicals and Materials Manufacturing Hub (SCHEMA), of which the University of Bath is a key partner, will bring together researchers from across the UK working with a large consortium of commercial, technology translation and civic partners. The Hub has been funded by £11 million from the UKRI Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and leverages a further £22 million in funding from its partners.

SCHEMA, which builds upon the success of iCAST, is one of five new manufacturing research hubs announced by UKRI EPSRC which aim to address a wide range of challenges in commercialising early-stage research with different manufacturing sectors. Science Minister, Andrew Griffith said: ‘Manufacturing accounts for almost a tenth of the UK’s economic output, but for the sector to keep growing and sustaining jobs nationwide, it has to tackle challenges ranging from reducing emissions, to cutting production costs. These new hubs will support UK researchers with the cutting-edge facilities they need, to help our manufacturers seize the benefits of technologies such as robotics and AI. Harnessing these innovations will cement the UK’s position as a global leader in sustainable manufacturing.’

The SCHEMA Hub will be led by iCAST Directors Professor Charlotte Williams OBE FRS and Professor Matthew Davidson. The Hub will also involve academics from Universities of Oxford, Bath, Liverpool, Cardiff, York and Cambridge.

Professor Williams said: ‘It is imperative that the chemical industry reaches net zero emissions and sustainability as so many essential downstream industries depend upon it. Our Hub will be well placed to tackle this difficult challenge by bringing together a very wide range of academic expertise with companies across the supply chain.’

Professor Davidson said: “We are delighted to be a key partner in this new manufacturing Hub. To deliver a sustainable chemical and materials manufacturing industry of the future is a huge challenge that requires a multidisciplinary and multi-partner approach, working closely across academia and industry.

“This substantial investment by EPSRC provides an exciting opportunity to develop the novel molecules, materials and processes that future manufacturing will need.”

The research focusses on transforming the way chemicals and polymers are designed, made, and recycled. This includes supporting the transition away from the use of virgin petrochemicals and redesigning processes and materials to increase recycling rates. A key focus will be to design processes that can produce chemicals and polymers from renewable raw materials such as biomass, carbon dioxide, and even industrial wastes, and integrating renewable energy into the process engineering.

Chemical manufacturing is crucial to the UK’s economy. It is the UK’s second largest manufacturing industry, directly employing over 140,000 people and delivering turnover exceeding £75 bn/yr. However, there is an urgent need for this industry to tackle the environmental impact from both manufacturing and its products. Greenhouse gas emissions from the global sector are significant, with it currently accounting for approximately 5–6% of emissions, which is 2–3 times larger than the global airline industry. Coupled to this are the challenges of raw material being sourced from fossil fuel extraction and refining, pollution in water and soil, and globally low rates of polymer recycling.

The academics working in SCHEMA have strong track records in commercial partnership and entrepreneurship, capitalising on the successful partnerships established in iCAST. The Hub is strongly integrated with high-tech and high growth SMEs as well as multinationals.

The research teams will work across the fields of sustainable chemistry, process engineering, polymer materials science, and digital technologies. A key aim is to leverage recent developments in computation and information technology to design future materials that are both functional and fully sustainable, embedding principles of circular economy and end-of-life management.

Within SCHEMA, researchers will work with a range of partners including businesses, catapults, professional societies, and international academic partners to tackle the shared materials design and sustainability challenges of important end-use sectors. These partnerships will enable sustainable chemicals and polymers to be designed for immediate use within key sectors including electronics, transportation, energy generation and storage, construction, and fast-moving consumer goods.

At launch, the team are supported by 25 companies from across the supply chain, representing polymer and material end-users.

The Hub seeks to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of major international efforts to transition to sustainable chemical manufacturing. The research program will train a new generation of postdoctoral and early career researchers to take on leadership roles in UK sustainable chemical manufacturing.

EPSRC Executive Chair Professor Charlotte Deane said: ‘Given the scale and importance of the UK’s manufacturing sector we must ensure that it is able to benefit fully from advances made across the research and innovation ecosystem. With their focus on innovation and sustainability the advances made by the hubs will benefit specific sectors, the wider manufacturing sector and economy, as well the environment.’