UK innovation fund supporting depolymerization research

A research consortium comprising technologists from the University of Birmingham and engineering firm Stopford has been awarded $500,000 (£300k) of funding from Innovate UK to develop a novel plastic recycling technology.

The technology is a chemical recycling process that uses hot compressed water as green solvent to selectively depolymerize waste plastics into commodity compounds which can be processed to produce virgin materials. The process being developed can recycling contaminated and degraded plastics, and requires reduced downstream processing.

To accomplish this, the process exploits the unique behaviour of water in its supercritical state (above a certain temperature and pressure) where it exhibits reduced polarity, high solvating power for complex polymers (like plastics). By virtue of combined intermediate heat and high pressure, it decomposes polymers at ‘selective spots’, thus producing target products at high proportions.

The new tranche of funding has been awarded by UK Research and Innovation’s Smart Sustainable Plastic Packaging Challenge to adapt the platform technology to PET-based plastic waste such as pots, salad trays, and tubs. It complements the team’s on-going work, also funded by Innovate UK, to establish a demonstrator facility at Birmingham’s Tyseley Energy Park for the recycling of polyolefin-based plastics, such as polyethylene and polypropylene which are used in packaging.

Ben Herbert, technology and innovation director at Stopford, said: “I am delighted that our technology has once again been recognized by UKRI’s SSPP Challenge as a ground-breaking recycling technology for the management of waste plastics, and I very much look forward to working with our project partners to expand its application to enable a circular approach to the management of PET-based plastics waste.”

“Supercritical water technology is exciting, intriguing, and challenging. We are dedicated to remain on the road of alleviating the upcoming challenges with science, engineering, and with working as one team of complementing skills,” said Bushra Al-Duri, professor of sustainable process engineering at the University’s School of Chemical Engineering and inventor of the platform technology.