Unlocking the power of plants to clean our oceans
An award from the University’s EPSRC IAA Open Call fund helped Professor Davide Mattia and the late Professor Janet Scott commercialise a sustainable alternative to plastic microbeads, helping to eradicate these harmful plastics from our oceans.
Each year, more than 250,000 tonnes of plastic microbeads enter the oceans, with estimates of 3 times as much ending up in soil. These microbeads are widely used in a range of products from cosmetics such as sunscreens through to paints, construction materials, consumer products and abrasives. Large quantities are leaking into the environment every year causing pollution and harming both wildlife and people as they pass up the food chain. Their small scale makes their removal impossible, and their durability and non-biodegradable nature means they can pollute our environment for centuries to come.
Whilst plastic microbeads were recently banned in the UK from some rinse-off products, they are still found in many other everyday products and companies are keen to find viable biodegradable alternatives. This has proven challenging, as possible substitutes have not met all the requirements needed. For example, silica is natural and hard, but not biodegradable; crushed shells are cheap and biodegradable but cannot be made in spherical form. One alternative, however, does have potential - cellulose.
"Cellulose is the most abundant biomaterial on Earth, and what plants and trees are made of. However, it is also a very stable material – which is a good thing as, otherwise, trees would melt away every time it rained, but a huge challenge when it comes to dissolving it and processing it." Professor Davide Mattia
Advancing science for a sustainable planet
Thanks to an idea they first came up with in 2011, Professors Davide Mattia and the late Janet Scott utilised EPSRC funding to investigate the potential of cellulose-based microbeads as that elusive viable alternative.
By unfolding the power of plants, they developed a scalable and cost-effective substitute to currently used microplastics - Naturbeads.
How IAA funding made a difference
Building on the original EPSRC -funded research that developed a process for producing cellulose-based beads, the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (IAA) funding helped them to convert their lab-scale process to a small-scale pilot.
According to Davide, IAA funding was also key to understanding the market potential and need for the product. The team used the funding to commission Naturbeads CEO, Dr Giovanna Laudisio, to conduct a market analysis. The outcomes were promising - highlighting the commercial opportunities presented by the innovation.
"Scaling up a technology from TRL 3/4 to TRL 6/7 is the most challenging part of the innovation process, so much so it is also known as ‘the valley of death’. Without the right support, many interesting inventions from academic research would not reach commercialisation, because big corporations often prefer to wait until the technology has reached a higher maturity level before investing." Dr Giovanna Laudisio
With help from the European Regional Development Fund Sustainable Technologies Business Acceleration Hub (STBAH) - a collaboration between the University of Bath and SetSquared - Naturbeads went on to secure UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) funding in partnership with Sky Ocean Ventures (SOV), through the Plastic Research and Innovation Fund.
"This initial funding enabled us to build and test our manufacturing technology, increasing bead manufacturing from milligrams to kilograms, allowing us to sample companies in a wide range of application. The strong interest in Naturbeads from industry is incredibly exciting both for us, and the future of our seas." Professor Davide Mattia
Since then, Naturbeads has received over £3.5m in investment and grants, including 3 InnovateUK Smart grants, and is working with clients to explore the use of its cellulose microbeads in paints and coatings, life sciences and industrial applications.
The company now employs ten highly qualified scientists, engineers, and technicians, and is based in the Department of Chemical Engineering, where it rents high-quality lab space.
"We have received wonderful support from both our industrial partnerships and the University as a whole." Professor Davide Mattia
Professor Davide Mattia is a Professor in Bath’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Institute for Sustainability.