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REnewable FunctIoNal matErial –
Training material scientists for a sustainable polymer industry

Final Report Summary - REFINE (REnewable FunctIoNal matErial – Training material scientists for a sustainable polymer industry)


Grant Agreement number: 289253
Project acronym: REFINE
Project title: REnewable FunctIoNal matErial – Training material scientists for a sustainable polymer industry
Funding Scheme: Marie Curie Initial Training Networks (ITN)
Periodic report: 1st and 2nd period
Period covered: from 01.01.2012 to 31.12.2015
Organisation PIC: 999892588
Organisation legal name: DUBLIN CITY UNIVERSITY
Person in charge of scientific aspects:
Title: Prof.
First name: Andreas
Name: Heise
Tel: +353-1-7006709
Fax: +353-1-7005503
Project website address:

The plastic industry contributes around 23% of the total sales in the European chemical industry but is traditionally heavily reliant on petrochemicals for their raw material, additives and reaction media (solvents). REFINE has developed sustainable routes to functional materials (green routes) for various polymer/plastic applications. The network applied integrated approaches combining green raw materials, green synthesis (biotechnology) and green processing. This was complemented by critical life cycle analyses and end-user benchmarking. The network demonstrated these concepts by targeting selected relevant industrial applications, which are fundamentally dependent upon polymers such as coatings. Moreover, the REFINE network trained 13 Early Stage Researchers (ESRs) in multidisciplinary thinking, who are aware of the environmental impact of their work and can apply the tools of sustainability in their future positions.

The groups involved in work package 1 focused on three types of renewable monomers, i.e. terpenes extractable from citrus peel waste (or other biomass), sorbitol sugar derived from natural starch and natural amino acids and sugar. It was successfully demonstrated that with these diverse platform materials a range of functional polymers and materials could be obtained. Terpene-based polycarbonates were applied in powder and UV-curable coating applications, both techniques widely used in industrial coating. Sorbitol-based materials also showed excellent coating results. Polypeptide materials were investigated as emulsifiers for polymer latex formation. Moreover, new biobased hyperbranched polymers were synthesized with balanced shelf-life and biodegradability with potential as additives in surfactants and emulsifying agents.

In work package 2 enzymes such as lipases and cutinases were investigated for the synthesis of functional polymers and their modification, respectively. Notably, a range of novel functional, highly promising polymers have been obtained from a raw material derived from birch bark, a major waste product in the wood industry. Functionalisation of these polymers makes them suitable for coating applications. Moreover, polymer surface modification was successful carried out by a range of enzymes. In particular the surface modification of biobased polyesters was studies as a mild and environmentally benign process. A special emphasis in this WP is was design and optimisation of new enzymes for polymer synthesis and modification employing biotechnological routes for which cloning and modelling approaches have shown promising results.

In work package 3 green reaction solvents such as supercritical carbon dioxide (scCO2), ionic liquids and also green polymer additives were investigated. The synthesis of polymers in scCO2 focused initially on the polymerisation of terpenes as green monomers. Interestingly it was found that these materials show interesting properties in conventional radical polymerisation, which has opened opportunities of these materials in a broad range of industrial applications. Moreover, the positive effect of scCO2 on the processing of polymers was shown for poly(caprolactone). Energy consumption can be reduced significantly due to the plasticising effect of scCO2. In another project new low toxicity, biodegradable ionic liquids were developed from renewable mandelic acid found in almonds, peaches, wheat leaves and grapes and it was shown that they can be used in the processing of green polymers such as PLA. Finally, a range of new plasticisers derived from renewable starting materials for renew able polymers were successfully developed in an effort to obtain fully green and renewable products.

Polymeric surfactants are important materials in many industries (food, personal care, polymers, etc.). Studies carried out under work package 4 showed that surfactants with performance comparable to commercial ones can be obtained from the renewable monomer sorbitol by optimisation of the polymerisation conditions and the polymer structure. Secondly, positive results were obtained from attempts to immobilise lipases on renewable carriers derived from waste products like rice husk and nutshells. These have the potential to replace traditional carriers as an inexpensive, stable and highly active enzymatic platform suitable for application in polymer synthesis. Finally, the eco-evaluation of two products/processes was evaluated, which provided valuable information on the ecological impact of the individual process steps and chemicals used.

Final results and their potential impact and use:
REFINE has develop new skills and expertise in sustainable green materials manufacturing and technologies and applications. It combined knowledge along the production chain in polymer and materials science, biotechnology and applications, ecological impact and Life Cycle Analysis.

Traditionally, the whole polymer/plastic industry is heavily reliant on petrochemicals for their raw material, additives and reaction media (solvents). The two major European and indeed worldwide challenges towards a sustainable polymer industry are (1) a reduction of the dependency from oil and (2) reduction of the environmental footprint in raw materials and production as well as at the end of the product life cycle. All of this should be achieved without scarifying quality of life in our society, which means that materials and technologies used should remain to be available inexpensively and at high quality
REFINE has successfully developed new synthetic routes to biomaterials from a range of bio-based building blocks. It provided new scientific insights, which will help to guide new development in the area of biobased process and materials. Moreover, the project has established economical impact by demonstrating the suitability of selected materials to compete with conventional materials in end-products. Most importantly, all researchers recruited under REFINE have received multidisciplinary training and have/will obtain a PhD degree. Some have already been recruited by industry (including REFINE partners) or initiated their academic research.