Research & Innovation Services

New Catalysts for the Production of Bio-Based and Degradable Plastics

KTA Knowledge Transfer Fellowship Award

Dept of Chemical Engineering
Prof Matthew Davidson

New catalysts for the production of bio-based and degradable plastics

Department of Chemistry and Purac

“The project has been vital in securing Purac as a long-term partner for collaborations with Bath.”

Professor Matt Davidson,
Department of Chemistry, University of Bath

“It’s easy to value what you are doing and undervalue what industry partners are doing. I came away with an appreciation that what industrial polymer chemists are dealing with is just as complex as what we’re doing in the lab.”

Dr Chris Chuck,
Department of Chemistry, University of Bath

"In this project we worked on a number of scientifically successful concepts, transferring them to industrial conditions. It has been a unique opportunity to learn from each other's field of work."

Dr Gerrit Gobius du Sart,
Industrial Chemist, Purac

The challenge

• Environmental legislation and consumer demand are driving the search for new plastics that have minimal environmental impact during production and are biodegradable after use
• Polylactide (PLA) is a bio-based polymer, derived from lactic acid from the fermentation of starch and sugars from crops, that fulfils many sustainability criteria
• Currently, PLA products are comparatively limited in their strength and heat-resistance. New generations of catalysts are needed to precisely control polymerisation to create stereospecific forms of PLA with better thermal and mechanical stability.

The solution

• Professor Matt Davidson and the Inorganic Chemistry Group at Bath have been working with environmentally-benign titanium and zirconium catalysts for polymerisation reactions. They also have a strong commitment to work with industrial partners to transfer lab-based processes to the industrial scale.
• In this project, Bath worked with Purac to develop catalysts that can produce forms of PLA on an industrial scale that have specific, desirable thermal and mechanical properties, thus enabling the economic manufacture of high-value PLA products.

Benefits and outcomes

• At Bath, two prime candidate catalyst systems for industrial PLA production were shortlisted
• When tested at Purac under industrial conditions, one catalyst was found to have comparable activity to that of the conventional, tin-based, industry standard catalyst
• Further studies are being carried out at Purac on this catalyst system to fully characterize it for scale-up and industrial application
• Early signs suggest that the new catalyst system is likely to be economically competitive with the conventional catalyst, while also yielding environmental and reaction-control advantages
• The project has forged closer links between Bath and Purac, with Purac sponsoring a follow up study by a PhD student and becoming an industrial sponsor of Bath’s Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies’ Doctoral Training Centre.

Project team

Professor Matthew Davidson, Project Leader, Department of Chemistry
Dr Chris Chuck, KT Fellow, Department of Chemistry
Dr Gerrit Gobius du Sart, Industrial Partner, Purac

Funded by the University of Bath’s EPSRC Knowledge Transfer Account.