Skip to main content

FLow Induced Phase Transitions, A new low energy paradigm for polymer processing

Periodic Reporting for period 2 - FLIPT (FLow Induced Phase Transitions, A new low energy paradigm for polymer processing)

Reporting period: 2017-09-01 to 2019-12-31

FLow Induced Phase Transitions is a new European Commission H2020 Future Emerging Technologies OPEN project that seeks to change the way we currently think about plastic processing.

The production of plastics in the EU employs 1.45M people and has a turnover of €89B but comes at an environmental cost, consuming ~778GWh of energy per annum, with commensurate CO2 emissions. Currently there is no alternative technology which can compete with existing thermoplastics processing, a process by which the majority of materials are produced through refining oil, polymerisation and extrusion, all at high temperatures. This is a key challenge for industry with pressure increasing to develop low energy, high-quality, wet-processing techniques for consumer products.

We intend to change this landscape with FLIPT.

Over hundreds of millions of years, Nature has evolved numerous strategies for efficient processing of its materials. One such solution has recently arisen from natural silk spinning in the form of FLIPT: FLow Induced Phase Transitions, a truly disruptive process which we believe could hold the key to a new low energy paradigm for polymer processing. Our research to date has shown that silk is at least 1000 times more efficient at processing than a standard polymer by solidifying through dehydration as a result of flow.

This project brings together researchers across the EU into one interdisciplinary team working on translating lessons from nature to make a new range of bio-inspired polymers, aquamelts, that can be processed with minimal energy input.

Our aim is to understand and reverse engineer natural aquamelts in order to establish a completely new bioinspired paradigm for polymer processing. Furthermore not only will this be a completely disruptive technology platform, it also promises to be orders of magnitude more energy efficient and “greener”; being performed at room temperature and water being the only direct by-product of processing. This will be sought through the delivery of two ambitious, yet achievable, objectives:

1) Reverse-engineering natural aquamelts: Learning from silk to develop a fundamental understanding of this novel processing mechanism, which will serve as a design criterion for our biopolymers.

2) Re-evolve candidate biopolymers into aquamelts. Apply our criteria and chemistry to reconfigure a candidate biopolymer’s hydration state to match that of a naturally occurring aquamelt. The primary candidate will be widely-available and cheap cellulose, harnessing our decades of experience in its modification and we will also explore the potential of plant polyesters (suberin and cutin), which are commonly regarded as industrial waste stream products.

Such ambition can only be achieved through a highly interdisciplinary consortium and partnership which we have assembled consisting of the diverse fields of zoology, botany, chemistry, physics and materials science and SME partners.

Once accomplished, this project could generate an entirely new state-of-the-art competence and technology for the EU where our novel chemistry and predictive models will be used to design and produce a new range of materials from synthetic or natural sources that can access an aquamelt’s low energy processing route.
The first year of the project has been split into three main streams which align with the main objectives above.

1) Laying the technical and experimental foundations to better understand how natural and candidate aquamelts underdo solidification.
2) Using modelling approaches to validate and predict the aquamelt solidification process.
3) Developing new chemistries to recreate the aquamelt solidification process in alternative biopolymers.

As a result, we have developed and applied several new tools to probe how aquamelts respond to changes in their environment. Specifically, we have combined rheometers (capable of controlling the flow of a material) with a range of spectroscopic and microscopic instruments that are able to visualise how structures develop as a result of shear. Results so far have demonstrated that it is possible to generate structures in water-based polymers (silks, PEO) in response to flow and that these materials undergo solidification once a critical stress/strain rate occurs. This has fed well into our modelling approach where we have demonstrated that if a polymer chain is stretched, its affinity for the water around it reduces, revealing the fundamentals behind the aquamelt process and strengthening our hypothesis. Concurrently we have been developing a range of alternative biopolymers with aquamelt functionalisation, based on cellulose and suberin, which have been generated in bench scale, tested between partners and shown promising results regarding their response to stress input and ability to be processed using our SME partner’s technology.
All work carried out in the project so far represents progress beyond the state of the art and is being evidenced (when commercially appropriate) through the generation of open access publications, public dissemination and outreach. The development of new experimental and modelling tools has already provided improved insights into how aquamelts undergo solidification, and results are currently serving as blueprints for the functionalisation of alternative biopolymers to adopt this lower energy processing route.

Expected results and impact until the end of the project are: 1) Individual, Development of early career researchers through upskilling in an interdisciplinary, international environment. 2) Academic, creation of new experimental tools, development of new modelling approaches and thus insight into aquamelt function and processing. 3) Technical, development of novel chemical functionalisation routes to generate aquamelts and physical processing strategies. 4) Commercial, creation of a new set of aquamelt functionalised materials utilised by our SME partners in their products and proof of concept data provided to novel industry partners for potential uptake.
Picture of Silkworm, the biological inspiration for this project
Word Cloud of Project
Picture of Silkworm, the biological inspiration for this project
Aquamelt Pathway
Picture of Silkworm, the biological inspiration for this project