The research investigated using the Hub funding remains at an early stage as would be expected with EPSRC funded fundamental research. Nonetheless, the target area – making useful products from carbon dioxide, is one in which there is potential for both environmental and commercial impact. It is relevant to note that there is a UK based company, Econic technologies, formed on the basis of earlier catalytic science from C. K. Williams which has commercialized catalysts for carbon dioxide/epoxide copolymerization (https://econic-technologies.com/) The product polycarbonate polyols are attracting increasing industrial attention as components in polyurethanes, a large commodity sector of the polymer market. Thus, the discoveries of the EPSRC Catalysis Hub funding are relevant to an emerging sector in both the polymer and polymerization catalysis sectors.
There is also a demonstrated environmental benefit to using carbon dioxide to make polymers – in effect there is a ‘triple win’, as for every tonne of carbon dioxide used to make polymers, there is a three-tonne saving in CO2 emissions. This arises because the carbon dioxide replaces epoxide in the conventional process and thus by avoiding petrochemical use there are emissions savings also.
The early-stage research in catalysis funded by the UK Catalysis Hub has allowed a broader range of polymers to be prepared from CO2. This is important because in the future, equivalent cost and environmental benefits could be envisaged in sectors beyond polyurethanes. For instance, some of the polymers prepared using switchable catalysis show good elastomeric behaviour so may be suitable as replacements for commodity materials like SBS (styrene-butadiene-styrene). The catalysis has also been used to produce fully bio-based and degradable pressure sensitive adhesives, ductile plastics, and improve the material properties of the most widely used bioplastic, PLA. Lastly, funding from the UK Catalysis Hub led directly to the discovery of a chemical recycling method of polycarbonates; this is an important result in the context of future waste management and carbon-capture processes.
Another impact area that has been developed thanks to the Catalysis Hub funding is the outreach and demonstration of the concept to the general public. Between October 2021 and March 2022, an exhibit of the group’s research was on display at the London design museum which was visited by over 20,000 people. People were inspired to find that everyday materials can be formed in a sustainable way from waste products (e.g. citrus peel). Excitingly, the exhibit will be on display in Hong Kong and Paris in the near future. The group is also heavily involved in the University of Oxford’s outreach program. Researchers regularly run workshops with school children (10-18 years) and display our work at science stalls in local museums. For example, at the Oxford University Natural History Museum as part of their Super Science Saturday Online fair in 2020. The interactive and virtual exhibit used a polymer lifecycle to stimulate engagement, discussion and exploration through a series of tasks to our approach to improve sustainability across the life cycle. Charlotte Williams presented at COP26 highlighting the opportunity for innovation to create methods to add value to carbon dioxide wastes and to transform them into useful products, like polymers. Charlotte also regularly contributes to general interest science pieces regarding plastic waste (e.g. Nature News feature on carbon upcycling, New Scientist articles ‘from pollution to solution’, Chemistry World, the Periodic) and has previously presented our work to a general audience on national radio (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b081lkm1).