University of Sheffield engineers to help UK chemicals industry become more sustainable

18th November 2020

Engineers from the University of Sheffield are set to play a key role in helping the UK’s chemical industry reuse materials in order to deliver huge environmental benefits and boost the economy.

Professor Peter Styring and Dr Jagroop Pandhal from the University’s Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering have received funding as part of a new £4.3 million research centre that aims to improve the sustainability of the UK chemical industry.

Led by Professor Jin Xuan at Loughborough University, the Interdisciplinary Centre for Circular Chemical Economy (NIC3E) will lead a new government push to revolutionise the way resources are managed in the UK’s £32 billion chemical industry to build a greener, more efficient economy.

The new centre will involve seven universities – Loughborough, Cardiff, Heriot-Watt, Imperial College London, Liverpool, Newcastle and Sheffield.

It will also involve more than 20 industrial and international partners, ranging from multinationals such as ExxonMobil, Shell, Croda and Unilever, to SMEs, national and local initiatives, including WRAP, representing the full diversity and breadth of the chemical industry.

The centre is part of a £22.5m investment announced this week (11 November 2020), which will transform how the UK manages the country’s waste and resource economy – more specifically, in the textiles, construction, chemical and metal industries.

Five UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centres will be established to meet these goals.

The centre involving engineers from the University of Sheffield aims to reduce the chemical industry’s reliance on fossil resources by creating methods to recover and reuse olefins from domestic waste products and CO2 emissions.Olefins are the raw materials for 70 per cent of all organic chemical production, used to create synthetic fibres, plastics, solvents and other high value-specialities.

As well as developing new transformative technologies, the centre will work with businesses to improve all aspects of the manufacturing process to reduce their carbon footprint.

Public engagement and policy engagement will be two separate, parallel tasks for the centre. The aim for public engagement is to increase public acceptance of using waste to produce consumer products, which would otherwise be produced from oil; while the aim for policy engagement is to help the government develop the UK’s Chemical Strategy to support the sustainable development of the UK’s chemical industry in the next 20 years. 

The Sheffield Team will play a major role in policy development and engagement with government departments such as DEFRA, BEIS and HM Treasury.

Professor Peter Styring, Professor of Chemical Engineering and Chemistry at the University of Sheffield, said: “At a time of unprecedented change, this is an ideal opportunity for us to help develop new and sustainable manufacturing strategies for the chemicals industry. For too long now we have been relying on a linear approach to manufacturing chemicals in a disposable society. 

“The team is highly impressive in both its breadth and depth, but the main strength is in its innovative vision. The large number of key industries that have signed up to be a part of the centre is testimony to the national and indeed global importance of the vision both environmentally and economically. 

“We have four years to make an initial impact. However, we are aware that the transition will take significantly longer so we are already putting measures in place to ensure its longevity which will ultimately be the key to major success.

“The centre is due to begin on 1 January 2021, but the enthusiasm is such that we are already planning the transition towards its start.”

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