A £9 million project to develop new chemical processing technology that could save hundreds of millions of tonnes of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions has begun at UK Universities including the University of Bath.

The SynHiSel programme has received a total of £9m in funding, from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation, and from industrial and University partners.

The project, the biggest of its kind to date, will investigate how to develop more efficient ways of separating chemicals – processes that underpin crucial parts of everyday life including clean water treatment, CO2 removal and food and pharmaceutical production.

It is estimated that these separations currently consume 10-15 percent of total energy usage, and that they could be made 10 times more efficient by creating new highly selective membranes. This could cut annual worldwide carbon dioxide emissions by 100 million tonnes and save £3.5 billion in energy costs.

The programme’s principal investigator Professor Davide Mattia, of the University of Bath’s Department of Chemical Engineering and the Centre for Advanced Separations Engineering (CASE), says the project aims to help the UK lead in developing new high value, high efficiency chemical processing techniques.

Prof Mattia says: “Some of the biggest challenges we face – how to develop drugs and vaccines, ensure food security and quality, and how to make sure the water we drink is clean – all require some form of chemical separation. We want to improve our understanding of highly selective membrane technology to create value in manufacturing and make processes more sustainable.”

Wide-ranging applications are key

One of the goals of the programme is to explore how to improve the selectivity of membranes and to apply this knowledge to a range of industrial processes. Prof Mattia adds: “Put simply, membranes work by retaining something and letting something else through –characteristics we call selectivity and permeance. Depending on the application, the value may be either in what’s retained, or what’s let through.

“Membrane-based separations tend to be energy efficient compared to other methods, but they are often highly specialised to a single purpose. We aim to work out how to maximise that energy efficiency advantage by investigating the fundamentals of membranes to uncover universal characteristics that can be applied to a range of real-world uses. This will save time, cost and reduce waste in developing individual applications in future.”

Doing this will create a much more robust approach and curb the need to reinvent an entirely new process for each application. The programme will bring together chemical and process engineers, chemists, materials scientists and experts in scaling-up of industrial manufacture. Prof Mattia says that this breadth of expertise will allow the team to be more inventive in its approach. Ian Metcalfe, Professor of Chemical Engineering at Newcastle University and deputy director of the programme, added: ‘Our membrane work was originally funded by an earlier EPSRC Programme Grant, SynFabFun, which was a great success. It is wonderful to see the team develop, to bring in new investigators and to move on to new challenges as SynHiSel.”

Programme aims to develop new talent

As well as new scientific innovation, the SynHiSel programme aims to develop a new generation of talent in the field, by acting as the virtual UK national membrane centre. The academic and industrial partners will create an initial cohort of 11 new PhD studentships, and PhDs and post-doctoral research associates will gain valuable experience as part of the multidisciplinary research groups and be given dedicated training and professional development opportunities.

Industrial partners including Evonik Industries AG, Dupont Teijing Films (UK), Pall Europe, BP, ExxonMobil, and Cytiva Europe will work with the team to ensure the industrial potential of the new processes and tools they develop. UK-based SMEs including Exactmer, Nanotherics, RFC Power, Watercycle Technologies, Laser Micromachining and the University of Bath spinout Naturbeads will also collaborate with the programme research team.

The SynHiSel programme team comprises: Prof Davide Mattia and Prof John Chew, University of Bath; Dr Patricia Gorgojo and Prof Peter Budd, University of Manchester; Prof Ian Metcalfe and Dr Greg Mutch, Newcastle University; Prof Neil McKeown and Prof Maria-Chiara Ferrari, University of Edinburgh; Prof Andrew Livingston, Queen Mary University of London; Prof Kang Li and Dr Qilei Song, Imperial College London.

You can find details on the SynHiSel programme grant at the EPSRC website. The programme grant was developed with support of Research and Innovation Services (RIS) at the University of Bath.