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£2.5million in EPSRC grants enables Queen’s University Belfast to help reduce plastics waste problem

Helping solve the ongoing environmental problem of plastics waste by reducing raw material usage and improving polymer performance will be one of the major benefits of two new research investigations being carried out on polymer nanocomposites at Queen’s University Belfast following the awarding of two grants totalling £2.5million from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Tiny molecules strung in long repeating chains, polymers in the natural world have been around since the beginning of time and today industrial polymers have a range of applications that far exceed that of any other class of material available including use as packaging materials, adhesives, coatings and electronic, biomedical and optical devices.

The new grants will enable the Polymer Cluster in The School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Queen’s and their partners, (The University of Oxford, The University of Bradford, Danone, Smith and Nephew, Innovia Films, JGP Perrite and Boran-Mopack), to further their work on an exciting new family of materials entitled nanocomposites, in which particles with nanoscale dimensions (a nanometer = 1 millionth of a millimetre), are dispersed in the polymer. Offering a dramatic improvement in material performance, with significant increases in mechanical and gas barrier properties, the use of nanocomposites can result in the client getting a more effective product. Improved performance also allows products to be manufactured with less material leading to reductions in raw material, processing energy and product transportation costs.

In addition to focussing on the processing route by which the nanoparticle-polymer mixture is formed into a final product and applying this knowledge to the development of proof of concept applications for industry and academia alike, Professor Eileen Harkin-Jones and her colleagues will also be using complex computer aided numerical modelling to predict the behaviour of materials under conditions that might otherwise be to difficult or costly to replicate, enabling manufacturers to exploit such materials to the full.

Explaining further about the eventual industrial applications for the outcomes of the research, Professor Eileen Harkin-Jones said: “Due to their properties and ease of processing into complex shapes, polymers are amongst the most important materials available to us today. The Polmers Industry currently contributes over £18 billion per annum to the UK economy and the arrival of nanocomposites in recent years has opened up a whole new window for product development.

“These substantial grants from the EPSRC will enable us to achieve a fundamental understanding of the influence of processing on the properties of the final product, and thus how to design and process nanocomposites more effectively. This in turn will offer us the possibility to significantly reduce the amount of polymer needed for a particular application and therefore help reduce the environmental burden due to plastics waste.”

Further information on work ongoing in the Polymers Cluster in the School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Queen’s can be found at

Lisa Mitchell | alfa
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