Currently there is no alternative technology which could 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.
Current bio-based polymers possess a small market share and are not considered a major threat to conventional petrochemical polymers. We intend to change this landscape with FLIPT.
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.
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.
I) Reverse-engineer naturally occurring aquamelts
We will determine the chemical, thermal and mechanical stability of independently evolved natural aquamelts such as spider and silkworm dopes. This will be done by the end of the first year by developing in-house combinatorial techniques to define the minimum energetic stress required to initiate a loss of their hydrated structure under flow conditions. We will then integrate these results with ab-initio modelling to define an aquamelt’s energetic and processing parameters landscape.
II) Re-evolve candidate biopolymers into aquamelts
We will apply our criteria and chemistry to reconfigure a candidate biopolymer’s hydration state so that it matches that of a naturally occurring aquamelt. The first/primary candidate is cellulose, based on the promising solubility profiles of cellulose ethers and their potential to be modified with peptide-based/inspired side chains. The second candidates are the largely unexplored plant polyesters (i.e. suberin and cutin), commonly thought of as industrial by-products yet are the 3rd most abundant plant polymers and represent an entirely underutilised resource and superb opportunity to investigate.