Sustainability boost for UK’s chemical industry

Newcastle University is supporting a new Government push to revolutionise the way resources are managed in the UK’s £32bn chemical industry to build a greener, more efficient economy.

Led by Loughborough University, the Interdisciplinary Centre for Circular Chemical Economy will be based in its Department of Chemical Engineering and will involve seven universities – Loughborough, Newcastle, Cardiff, Heriot-Watt, Imperial College London, Liverpool and Sheffield.

It will also involve more than 20 industrial and international partners, ranging from multinationals such as ExxonMobil, Shell and Unilever to SMEs and national and local initiatives, including the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP).

The Interdisciplinary Centre for Circular Chemical Economy will aim to reduce the reliance on fossil resources by creating methods to recover and reuse olefins from domestic waste products and CO2 emissions. Olefins are the raw materials for 70% of all organic chemical production, used to create synthetic fibres, plastics, solvents and other high value-specialities.

As well as developing new transformative technologies, the centre will work with businesses to improve all aspects of the manufacturing process to reduce their carbon footprint. It will also look at ways to encourage members of the public to accept renewable technology and products whilst also working with policymakers to improve industry’s attitude towards the circular economy.

Fossil independence

Newcastle University’s Dr Elizabeth Gibson, Reader in Energy Materials in the School of Natural and Environmental Sciences and Professor Aad van Moorsel, specialist in cyber security and blockchain, School of Computing, are co-Investigators.

Dr Gibson will lead engagement with the National Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Hub and steering engagement with businesses, policy makers and the public to provide evidence to inform decision making and to drive behavioural change towards sustainable practice. Prof van Moorsel’s work will enable information transparency and sharing between stakeholders, including both businesses and consumers.

Dr Gibson said: “Transforming the Chemical Industry to fossil independence, by converting waste into valuable feedstocks, materials and speciality chemicals, is critical to the national economy, the environment and society. These activities are of particular importance to the industrial cluster in the North East of England, and the ambition aligns with regional investment towards the transition to net zero carbon. We are delighted to be part of this ambitious, UK-wide centre and look forward to working with our academic and industrial partners and policymakers to address the complex challenge of translating new sustainable processes and technology from the lab scale to industry-wide application.”

Professor van Moorsel added: “As a computer scientist involved in this project, I focus on making the circular economy transparent, so that the public as well as policy makers can see for themselves the latest data about the different stages of a circular economy.  The latest developments in blockchain technology provide us with a public platform on which we can store the necessary data securely but transparently.”

In total, five UKRI Interdisciplinary Circular Economy Centres will be established to meet these goals.

Professor Jin Xuan, from Loughborough University, who will lead the centre, said: “According to a United Nations report, chemicals production and consumption needs to be doubled in the next 10 years in order to fulfil our basic needs.

“But that is simply not going to happen unless we adopt a circular economy approach.

“Our centre will kick start this timely transition of the UK’s £32 billion pounds chemical industry into a circular system.

“We believe such transition to a circular economy will not be possible unless a network of organisations are willing to work together as an ecosystem, including the stakeholders along the supply chain, but also the Government, third parties and the public.

“We are proud that we have such a strong and effective partnership at our centre.

“Working with this range of partners, we will be able to understand the key barriers and drivers to maximise circularity within the chemical industry.

“We are confident that our research will make a strong contribution to the UK’s Industrial Strategy on Clean Growth.”

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