N8 Industry Innovation Forum Brings Sustainable Solutions One Step Nearer

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Using renewable plant materials as the basis for manufacturing everyday products is becoming closer, thanks to a pioneering partnership between N8 academics and industry partners that has received funding from the Technology Strategy Board.

In recent years, there has been an increased focus on industrial biotechnology – using biological materials instead of chemicals as a way to sustainably create materials and energy– and it is set to transform sectors such as waste, energy, plastics and pharmaceuticals, and in the process create new jobs.

The collaboration has its roots in the N8 Industry Innovation Forum (N8 IIF) meeting in October 2013 which focussed on industrial biotechnology. The N8 IIF helped to bring academics from the universities of York, Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield together with industry partners, including Unilever, British Sugar and Croda, to explore a number of specific areas related to identifying suitable bio-derived materials and new manufacturing processes and technologies.

The N8 universities have a significant strength in bio-renewable technologies and research. Both Unilever and Croda already had links with the N8 universities individually, but the N8 IIF added to this by connecting them with the right academic expertise for the specific challenges that the partners wanted to address.

One area the partnership is focusing on is pulling together information and analysis about the properties of bio-derived materials and their ability to re-create effects such as shine in hair shampoo and detergent capability. There is lots of data within each of the partners’ organisations, and across Europe, so the partners are looking at the existing evidence base with the aim of informing the direction of future research. An innovative Information and Knowledge Management System (IKMS) is being developed to allow interrogation of complex data so that functional materials can be identified more quickly.

The IKMS is the first of its kind to be applied across the chemical industry supply chain, and its success to date has led to a brand new side project to explore the wider commercial applications for collaborative data exploitation.

Colin Reid, Director of the N8 IIF, said:
“There is a fantastic opportunity for the North of England, and the UK as a whole, to become a major hub of expertise in bio-derived materials as a means to sustainably develop and produce many of the things that we currently manufacture synthetically. It’s really encouraging to see this collaboration already having a positive impact in the development of this field.”

Dr Jerry Winter, an e-Science Leader based at Unilever Port Sunlight said:
“The cooperation between the Universities and the opportunity provided by N8IIF support has been vital in developing and delivering these projects.”