A new £7 million centre at the University of Leeds will lead UK research in manufacturing advanced chemical products.
The Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) in Complex Particulate Products and Processes will fund 50 new research students in a field that has been targeted by the Government as a key growth area for the UK economy.
"Advanced formulated chemical products are worth more than £200 billion a year to the UK economy and are used in a wide range of sectors, from advanced drugs and protecting crops through to the toiletries we use," said Professor Simon Biggs, of the University of Leeds' Faculty of Engineering, who led the bid. "Our centre will be working across the whole supply chain, whether that's discovering new materials, getting these things on the manufacturing line or delivering them to consumers."
The new facility is one of 22 new CDTs announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Rt. Hon George Osborne MP, in Manchester today (March 28, 2014). Government money, allocated by the Engineering and Physical Science Research Council (EPSRC), will provide more than half of the centre's funding, with the remainder coming from the University and industrial partners.
Companies backing the CDT include the multinational consumer goods company Procter & Gamble (P&G), agrochemical developer Syngenta, petroleum additives manufacturer Infineum and major drug companies including GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer and AstraZeneca.
Professor Biggs said: "This is not just about researchers sitting in their labs formulating clever materials. One of the problems in research is that a molecule might be ideal in theory but it may be impossible to manufacture it at scale and at a cost that can be supported by the market.
"We are going to be training researchers who can see the whole picture. An engineer looking at manufacturing problems will need to understand the limitations and restrictions of the chemist. The chemist will need to engage with the production line and the market. They will work in cross-disciplinary teams. The focus is on developing people who can go out there and continue the UK's leadership in this field."
One key area of work is "micro encapsulation," which allows active ingredients in products such as drugs, agrochemicals, foods, cleaning products and toiletries to be better targeted.
"Think about chemotherapy. It kills cancer cells but it also kills off a lot of good tissue. If we can encapsulate those active ingredients on the micro-scale, so that they are only released on the cancer cells, we could give you a lot less drug and be better at targeting the cancer. We might also be reducing the cost of the drug because we need a lot less active ingredient," Professor Biggs said.
Other applications include micro capsules that slowly leak active ingredients in pesticides, protecting a plant over an extended period, or micro-packages that preserve active ingredients in cleaning products so that they remain effective after months in the supply chain.
"A Malteser is an 'encapsulated' piece of honeycomb. Our honeycomb might be a drug, an agrochemical, something in your shampoo or an additive to your engine lubricant," Professor Biggs said.
The CDT will involve academics from the University's School of Process, Environmental and Materials Engineering, School of Mechanical Engineering, School of Chemistry, School of Design, School of Food Science and Nutrition and Leeds University Business School.
Research students are expected to be recruited from backgrounds including chemistry, physics, material engineering, product engineering and product design.
The first cohort of 10 PhD students will start work in October.