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A team at the Department of Chemistry has used EPSRC IAA funding to explore how to manufacture and use sustainable polymers, instead of those derived from fossil fuels, in cleaning and laundry products.

Graphic with a model of a polymer molecule against a background of the recycling logo and polluting manufacture being replaced with natural products

Household products, such as laundry detergent, contain polymers which help to improve cleaning efficiency and provide other performance benefits. One concern is that these water-soluble polymers are not biodegradable and generally derive from fossil fuels, so they may cause pollution.

Funding from the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account (2020-21) enabled a team in the Department of Chemistry, led by Professor Charlotte Williams, to work with Unilever to explore the use of sustainable polymers in liquid formulations.

The work drew on Professor Williams’ lab’s existing track-record of innovation and publication in polymers created from renewable sources such as agricultural and food waste. The research chimed with Unilever’s ambition to replace all petrochemicals in its household products with renewable and biodegradable alternatives by 2030, which offered a great opportunity for collaboration.

IAA funding allowed the University and Unilever to work together over 18 months to explore the polymers prepared at the University of Oxford in tests and application development relevant to formulation technology. The teams synthesised and analysed a range of new polymers, regularly exchanging data and samples and meeting to discuss the results. Dr Patrick de Jongh and Mr Lukas Wille were also able to spend time working in Unilever laboratories to test the polymers prepared in Oxford.

As a result of the collaboration, 40 new polymers were synthesised using the innovative catalysis developed in the Williams lab. The catalysis, discovered in an EPSRC fellowship award to Professor Williams, allows for carbon dioxide and biomass derived chemicals to be transformed into polymers. In the EPSRC IAA grant, the catalysis manufacturing method was specifically tailored to produce polymers with properties which may be relevant to homecare products, including: variable but low molar mass; hydrophilicity; design of chains to encompass flexibility/rigidity; ensuring polymers solubility was matched to the formulation; control over rheology; and thermal degradation and viscoelasticity.

Data on the new polymers was used, in conjunction with computer simulations, to learn more about the properties of these interesting new products. In parallel, the potential for these polymers to biodegrade, particularly in conditions relevant to water treatment, was explored. The study identified a number of lead samples which are currently undergoing further application development and testing. The EPSRC IAA grant also allowed the team to develop a new proxy-assay, used by both the University of Oxford and Unilever to assess the biodegradability of future new polymers.

Whilst developing potential polymers for home-care applications was the original ambition of the project, the team exceeded it by also identifying biodegradation assays and by improving the future manufacturing method for these materials. The research was instrumental in providing the proof-of-concept results which underpinned a successful EPSRC Prosperity Partnership between Unilever, the University of Liverpool, and Oxford.

Professor Williams comments: ‘IAA funding was instrumental in helping us develop the science to use sustainable polymers in future liquid formations; and helped us to establish a collaboration with scientists, application experts and environmental assurance teams at Unilever.

 ‘Our goal is to work with Unilever to achieve more sustainable homecare products. We are encouraged by the work so far as it has addressed some of the key barriers to future manufacture at scale and to development for the products. We hope that we can collectively build a portfolio of new polymers for use in future liquid formulations, including in home, personal care and beauty products, which are bio-derived, low-carbon, and biodegradable.’

Further information

Charlotte Williams OBE FRS is a Professor of Inorganic Chemistry and Associate Head of Department (Research) in the Department of Chemistry

Switch Catalysis for the Synthesis of Degradable Polymers for Homecare Applications was funded by the EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account from April 2020 to September 2021

Partner: Unilever, Home Care Division

EPSRC Prosperity Partnership Award (EP/V038117/1): Cleaner Futures (Next-Generation Sustainable Materials for Consumer Products)