Changing the world for 50 years
Tackling waste with green chemistry
Posted on Thursday 28 March 2013
Within the next few years, our kitchen cabinets could be made from recycled straw, our liquid crystals displays transformed into wound dressings and our carpets glued with environmentally friendly waste starch, thanks to groundbreaking research underway at the University of York’s Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence.
As a world-leading research facility, the centre studies the science of sustainability, using chemistry to develop practical solutions for some of the world’s most significant environmental challenges.
Near the top of that list of challenges is our dependence on carbon fuels and the growing problem of waste, a troublesome by-product of 21st century living and a symptom of a throw-away society that is reluctant to reduce, re-use or recycle. Food waste, discarded LCD TVs and old mobile phones are just some of the items subjected to detailed scientific investigation by the 70-strong Green Chemistry team in a bid to breathe new life into some of their most valuable components.
Consumer society creates waste
“We live in a consumer society where there is increasing demand for the latest new products and devices. This creates a great deal of waste and depletes resources. If we are to become more sustainable, we have to develop more eco-friendly products and processes that both reduce waste and prevent toxic substances from entering the environment”, said the centre’s Director Professor James Clark.
If we are to become more sustainable, we have to develop more eco-friendly products and processes that both reduce waste and prevent toxic substances from entering the environment
Professor James Clark
The work attracts significant support from the UK and EU major research organisations such as the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA). Other key partners include The Wolfson Trust and the Technology Strategy Board (TSB).
Industrial and corporate organisations are aiming to translate some of the science into commercial reality with the help of the nearby Biorenewables Development Centre, a joint venture between Green Chemistry and the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products. Opened in 2012, the new development centre aims to strengthen links with industry by providing a facility that will act as a test bed to pilot products and processes developed in the labs next door.
Green Chemistry is set for further growth in late 2013 with a move to the Department of Chemistry’s new £9m undergraduate teaching and research building.
“Globally there is a growing requirement for cleaner processes and products, with an insistence that licensed technology is the cleanest available,” said Prof Clark. “York’s Green Chemistry Centre is playing a leading role in the development of these new processes and products, and at the same time it is nurturing the next generation of researchers working from new labs who will take this important work forward.”
Green alternative to MDF
Recent research funded by DEFRA led by the Centre’s Deputy Director, Dr Avtar Matharu, has focused on making bio composites from agricultural by-products such as wheat straw to be used as green replacements for chipboard and Medium Density Fibre (MDF) board in home furnishings. The Green Chemistry Centre developed a method of compressing and bonding the straw - with adhesive derived from biomass combustion ash – to produce structural composites called bio-boards. The bio-boards are a green alternative to natural wood and are free of the potentially hazardous chemicals found in some chipboard.
Old carpets tiles also have the prospect of new life with the development of switchable adhesives which allow the fibre and underlay layers to be separated cleanly and re-used.
“The new adhesives are made from modified waste starch – current adhesives don’t allow a clean separation between the carpet and the backing making it more difficult and resource intensive to separate them. Currently 90 per cent of carpet tiles end up in landfill sites so finding a way of recycling them is a significant step forward,” said Dr Matharu.
Currently 90 per cent of carpet tiles end up in landfill sites so finding a way of recycling them is a significant step forward
Dr Avtar Matharu
The Green Chemistry team are also studying novel processes to extract and recycle high value chemicals from food waste, and ways to recover critical and rare metals such as neodymium, often used as an alloy in high strength magnets, from industrial wastes.
Wound dressings from LCDs
An earlier research project funded by the TSB uncovered a way of transforming one of the key chemical compounds used in Liquid Crystal Displays (LCDs) into antibacterial films that ultimately may be used as wound dressings.
“The demand for green and sustainable chemistry can only grow,” said Professor Clark. “Major organisations around the world are putting sustainability at the top of their agenda and they will need good science to help them achieve their goals.”
- The Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence
The Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence at the University of York is a world leading research centre. Find out more about their work to promote the development and implementation of green and sustainable chemistry.
- New building
Green Chemistry will be moving to the Department of Chemistry’s new undergraduate teaching and research buildings later in 2013. Visit the web site to take a video walk through the planned new building.
- The Biorenewables Development Centre
The Biorenewables Development Centre provides an industry test bed for products and processes developed by the Green Chemistry team.
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