My new BBC radio and podcast series is out!

Modern life would quite literally fall apart without glues – they hold our buildings, our phones, even our bodies together. But the story of stickiness runs much deeper than that. In fact, our greatest leaps forward as a species couldn’t have happened without adhesives.

In this series we chart the journey of human progress through the sticky substances that have shaped us. In episode one we explore the very earliest adhesives, dating back at least 190,000 years, that allowed our ancestors to invent, innovate, and make the first tools. And we hears how lumps of these prehistoric glues contain fragments of the stone age people who used them, trapped in time for thousands of years. Listen here or where ever you get your podcasts.

Producer: Anand Jagatia
Presenter: Mark Miodownik
Executive Producer: Alexandra Feachem
BBC Studios Audio Production

Mission Hub: Preventing plastic pollution with engineering biology

I am part of a new Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Mission Hub which aims to tackle the urgent environmental challenge of plastic pollution and create new ways for the sustainable deconstruction of synthetic plastics as the UK transitions towards a circular plastics economy. 

The hub will be led by Professor Andrew Pickford (University of Portsmouth), with support from scientists from seven leading UK institutions, including UCL co-investigators: Professor Helen Hailes (UCL Chemistry), Dr Jack Jeffries (UCL Biochemical Engineering), Professor Mark Miodownik (UCL Mechanical Engineering), Professor Paola Lettieri (UCL Chemical Engineering), Dr Andrea Paulillo (UCL Chemical Engineering), Dr Brooks Paige (UCL Centre for Artificial Intelligence), Professor Christine Orengo (UCL Biosciences).   

Over the next five years, the Mission Hub will develop impactful engineering biology platforms that will enhance the performance of enzymes and microbes for the deconstruction of a wide range of plastics.  

Building on previous research from the Plastic Waste Hub at UCL, the project will also develop innovative and environmentally friendly ways to create high-value products from waste. 

The use of phase change material as an actuator in linkage fabric structures

A new research paper from my research group shows the latest developments in our work developing wearable assistive linkage fabrics. The work was led by PhD student Christian Partik. We are developing wearable assistive devices that can actively modulate stiffness on demand is envisioned to support joints and facilitate limb movement. This paper shows how this can be done using phase change materials.  Read the paper here.

Comfort Loop Research Project

I am leading this project which was recently awarded UKRI £1.75M funding to address the issues concerning pollution and global warming impacts of nappies, incontinence products and period products.

With birth rates increasing in some parts of the world and ageing populations a significant factor in others, demand is rising for disposable nappies, period products, incontinence pads and similar items. Exacerbated by a multitude of product types and multiple disposal routes, the resulting plastic waste stream is already out of control.

The Comfort Loop is a University College London project to design a sustainable, joined-up system covering production, use and disposal of absorbent hygiene products in the UK. Focused on fundamental research with potential for practical impacts, the research will harness the expertise of the NHS, charities, the recycling sector and local government.

This project is one of five multidisciplinary 3-year projects funded by EPSRC and BBSRC.

Two PhD positions available in my lab

  1. PhD in Animate materials to solve plastic waste issues

Restoration of forests is part of the strategy to achieve net-zero target emissions by enhancing the removal of greenhouse gases from the atmosphere. The UK has pledged to plant 2 billion trees by 2050. The most common afforestation strategy uses tree shelters to protect planted seedlings from predation by animals such as deer, sheep and rabbits. The shelters are generally made of plastics, such as polypropylene.  However, there are two environmental concerns about their deployment which have become acute now that 2 billion will be planted. Firstly, after their useful period, tree shelters are often left at planting sites and become plastic waste that harms wildlife and pollutes the environment.  Secondly, the resources used to manufacture and transport tree shelters affect the environment by producing greenhouse gases and other polluting substances [1]. Our industry partner The Woodland Trust is urgently seeking a solution to this problem. We propose to develop a biodegradable tree shelter that maintains its structural integrity until the sapling reaches maturity at which point it biodegrades rapidly and completely. Recent work has reported 3D-printable enzymatically active plastics with poly(caprolactone) (PCL) [2]. In related work polylactate (PLA) with nano-dispersed enzymes have been reported with rapid degradation profiles, again with commercial enzymes. Previous research by the supervisory team has described chemical catalysts that can be incorporated into 3D-printed polymeric structures, where these 3D-printed constructs retained the activity of the original catalyst. This PhD project seeks to extend this work to develop a novel animate material that will biodegrade only when it receives a signal for the growing tree [3]. To apply follow instructions here and look up Project ID: 2228bd1078 

References

Chau, C., Paulillo, A., Lu, N., Miodownik, M., & Lettieri, P. (2021). The environmental performance of protecting seedlings with plastic tree shelters for afforestation in temperate oceanic regions: A UK case study. Science of the Total Environment, 791. doi:10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.148239

C. DelRe, Y. Jiang, P. Kang, J. Kwon, A. Hall, I. Jayapurna, Z. Ruan, L. Ma, K. Zolkin, T. Li, C. D. Scown, R. O. Ritchie, T. P. Russell,  T. Xu, Nature, 2021, 592, 558.

Animate Materials – A prespective. Eds. Miodownik & Morris: https://royalsociety.org/topics-policy/projects/animate-materials/

2. Interdisciplinary PhD in Net Zero – the repair economy

I am looking for a PhD Candidate to do research on the role of the repair economy in meeting UK net zero targets. This fully funded scholarship aims to examine ‘what works’ for local residents, communities, and businesses and in the East of London and the Thames Gateway. The research is connected to our work on the Big Repair Project (www.bigrepairproject.org.uk) and will involve work across disciplines.  The ideal candidates have backgrounds in the Arts and Humanities with an interest, and/or experience working with engineers and scientists on the net zero transition. Candidates with backgrounds in law, economics, and policy are particularly welcome to apply. Contact me for details.

Home Compostable Plastics Dont Work

Our new research paper published in the journal Frontiers in Sustainability is based on a 2 year citizen science study on home compostable plastics. We engaged with 9,701 UK citizens geographically spread across the UK to examine their capability, opportunity, and motivation to do this. Of this cohort 1,648 citizens performed home compost experiments to test the environmental performance of compostable plastics. We report on the type of plastics they tested and their disintegration under real home composting conditions. The results show that the public are confused about the meaning of the labels of compostable and biodegradable plastics. 14% of sampled plastic packaging items tested were certified “industrial compostable” only and 46% had no compostable certification. Of the biodegradable and compostable plastics tested under different home composting conditions, the majority did not fully disintegrate, including 60% of those that were certified “home compostable.” We conclude that for both of these reasons, home composting is not an effective or environmentally beneficial waste processing method for biodegradable or compostable packaging in the UK. Read the full paper here.