The University of Bath is a key partner in a major UK government investment in research to improve the sustainability of chemical and polymer production. Led by the University of Oxford, the Sustainable Chemicals and Materials Manufacturing Hub (SCHEMA) will bring together researchers from across the UK working with a large consortium of commercial, technology translation and civic partners.

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 for globally low rates of polymer recycling.

The Sustainable Chemicals and Materials Manufacturing Hub (SCHEMA) aims to improve the sustainability of chemical and polymer production by transforming their design, manufacture, and recyclability at all stages of the product lifecycle.

The SCHEMA Hub will be led by Prof. Charlotte Williams OBE FRS working in the University of Oxford’s Department of Chemistry and Professor Matthew Davidson from the Institute for Sustainability and the Department of Chemistry at the University of Bath.

It will involve academics from Chemistry, Engineering, Materials Science, Computation, Environmental Economics and Law at the Universities of Oxford, Bath, Liverpool, Cardiff, York and Cambridge.

The Hub has been funded by £11m from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and leverages £22m commitments from its partners.

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 from across the supply chain.”

Professor Davidson, Co-director of the SCHEMA Hub added: “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 and to support the transition away from the use of virgin petrochemicals and 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.

This will build upon the Bath’s research expertise in sustainable chemical technologies and sustainable systems, including making painkillers from plant sources instead of crude oil, and helping launch the UK’s first pilot plant for recycling plastic lab waste.

The Hub is strongly integrated with high-tech and high growth SMEs as well as multinationals. It builds upon the successful Bath-led Innovation Centre for Applied Sustainable Technologies (iCAST). Together with our recently announced EPSRC CDT in Sustainable Chemical Technologies: A Systems Approach it places the University of Bath at the centre of a highly integrated research, training and innovation ecosystem for sustainable technologies.

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, the Catapult Network, professional societies and international academic partners to try 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 is supported by 25 companies from across the supply chain and 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.

SCHEMA is one of five new hubs launched by the EPSRC to improve the environmental sustainability in manufacturing processes.

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.”