Innovative research project looks to turn waste into gels

Following the announcement of the EPSRC grant for the IPN Catalyst Gels project, media outlets across the globe ran articles as to how waste from a potato crops might be recycled into medical gels and beauty creams, thanks to our new research project.

The University of Bristol, John Innes Centre (JIC), the University of Bath and the University of East Anglia (UEA) will pioneer new products for the pharmaceutical, beauty, home product and food industries.

Thanks to a £2.8m grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Innovate UK IB Catalyst Programme, the four teams will be funded for research over the four-year project. This collaborative project, will be led by the University of Bristol and Professor Eichhorn, commencing in June 2016.

Using innovative techniques that draw on existing academic research, the project will look to produce gels that can incorporate nanoscale fibres. These gels – called interpenetrating network (IPN) gels – will be used in key industrial applications such as the home care industry and in foods. Fibres are an important part of a healthy diet, so their incorporation into foods in this way will help to improve people’s well-being.

As well as providing the means for making new products, the research project will also help reduce production costs and CO2 emissions currently associated with the manufacturing of conventional gels.

Speaking about the award Professor Eichhorn, who is also Chair in Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Bristol said: “I am delighted that this project has been funded as it brings together a multidisciplinary group of researchers aiming to better understand the use of enzymes for making gels. Spanning fundamental to translational research, this project will enable me to explore new areas of cellulose and polysaccharide research.”

Professor Eichhorn, who originally trained as a physicist, works closely with engineers, biologists, physicists and chemists. His research focuses on the mechanical properties and interfaces in natural and sustainable materials, particularly cellulose fibres and composites. He is both a Fellow of the Institute of Materials and the Royal Society of Chemistry, and is also a member of the Institute of Physics. In2015, he was elected as a Fellow of the American Chemical Society’s Cellulose and Renewable Materials Division – the first time a UK scientist has received this honour since its conception in the 1920s.

Prof Yaroslav Khimyak from UEA’s School of Pharmacy said the gels could have a range of uses from cosmetics and beauty products to medical wound-healing and drug delivery creams. “As well as helping reduce waste, this project will also reduce production costs and CO2 emissions currently associated with the manufacturing of conventional gels,” he said.

Prof Rob Field from JIC said the project brought together science and engineering in a targeted manner: “It needs a multi-disciplinary team to devise practical solutions that map to industry needs,” he said.

The team will investigate how enzymes can be used to make starch-based gels using nanoscale fibres. Dr Jesus Angulo of UEA’s School of Pharmacy, said: “This is good news for potato farmers because it means waste crops could soon be put to better use”.

Cellulose is a truly sustainable, renewable and multi-functional natural material and starch is a highly abundant natural polymer, found for example in potatoes and rice. This project will enable the production functional hydrogels from these cheap materials. It will produce high added value from waste.

Grant details can be found via this link.

For more information on the project, please contact Stephen Eichhorn (s.j.eichhorn@bristol.ac.uk) or Julie Lewis-Thompson (julie.lewis-thompson@bristol.ac.uk)