£9 million research programme to reinvent chemical separation methods and significantly cut total global energy consumption begins

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 Manchester.

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.

Professor Peter Budd, The University of Manchester said: “Both scientific ingenuity and engineering skill are needed in the development of new membranes and processes for sustainable and efficient separations. We are delighted to be working with some wonderful collaborators to explore new opportunities for membrane technology.”

The programme’s principal investigator Professor Davide Mattia, of the University of Bath 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.”

Both scientific ingenuity and engineering skill are needed in the development of new membranes and processes for sustainable and efficient separations. We are delighted to be working with some wonderful collaborators to explore new opportunities for membrane technology.
Professor Peter Budd, Professor of Polymer Chemistry

The University of Manchester has a proud record of developing innovative materials that offer the prospect of membranes with unprecedented selectivity and productivity for molecular separations on a large scale. Highly permeable polymers referred to as ‘Polymers of Intrinsic Microporosity’ (PIMS) invented by chemists in Manchester nearly 20 years ago, are at the forefront of research into efficient gas separations. Graphene, first isolated by physicists at Manchester around the same time, has led to graphene-based membranes with enormous potential for producing clean water from dirty water.

Through the SynHiSel programme grant, researchers in chemistry and chemical engineering at The University of Manchester will work together with membrane scientists across the UK to help tackle global challenges such as cleaning our air, cleaning our water, and enabling industry to operate more sustainably. A focus on real-world applications is facilitated by the support of industrial partners ranging from multinational companies to small enterprises such as the Manchester spin-out, Watercycle Technologies.

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.”

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.

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