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Pioneering plastic-eating enzyme centre opens to industry

June 7, 2022

The University of Portsmouth’s Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI) has opened its new Industrial Engagement Hub (IEH).  This pioneering research centre is creating solutions to the global plastic pollution problem.  The IEH brings together researchers and businesses to develop enzyme-enabled technologies for the recycling and upcycling of plastic waste at industrial scale.

Through the IEH, the University now have the capabilities to bridge the gap between the fundamental research and industrial application: from the “discovery” of new plastic degrading enzymes; to “engineering” these enzymes for high stability, activity and yield; “deploying” the enzymes in bio-recycling processes at pilot scale; and then “applying” the enzymes in a full circular process. They are now ready for collaboration with industry and the third sector to enable scaling, exploitation and societal impact of these technologies: with the potential to reduce energy usage & greenhouse gas emissions and enhance circularity.

The CEI, which launched in 2019, was established following research by the Centre’s Director Professor John McGeehan which re-engineered a naturally occurring enzyme that was able to digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET). PET is the most common thermoplastic, used to make single-use drinks bottles, clothing and carpets and it takes hundreds of years to break down in the environment.

The plastic-eating PETase enzyme breaks down PET back into its building blocks, creating an opportunity to recycle plastic infinitely and reduce plastic pollution and the greenhouse gases driving climate change.

The IEH will provide the Centre with new state-of-the-art Polymer Analysis, Polymer Synthesis and Biorecycling laboratories, alongside an Innovation Space and expanded Postgraduate Suite.

Professor McGeehan said:

“These new facilities will help us to bridge the gap between our current fundamental research, and the creation of practical and scalable enzyme-enabled technologies for recycling and upcycling plastic waste. In short, these facilities allow us to break, make, break and remake plastics over and over again so that we can develop true industrial recycling processes and partnerships.

“Thanks to our global reputation, we are already working in collaboration with industry and some of the world’s biggest companies to recycle and reuse those materials that are currently often incinerated, sent to landfill and leak into the environment. These are things like mixed waste, where the plastics are unable to be sorted by recycling facilities, because of poor quality, dirty plastic or composite materials, which are made up of different types of plastics and polymers, and can be difficult to recycle at present.”

The IEH has been made possible by £1.7million investment from the HM Government Getting Building Fund through the Solent LEP and the University of Portsmouth.

Rory Miles, Innovation Fellow for the CEI, said:

“The plastic pollution crisis is one of the most urgent challenges of our time and our vision is to develop solutions which can ultimately stem the flow of plastics into the natural environment.

“But enzymes alone are not enough. We need to translate this fundamental science into real-world applications and processes that can be commercialised and scaled-up to match the vast scale of the plastic pollution problem. The IEH will help enable us to realise this ambition, through its delivery of bespoke facilities that enhance our collaboration with partners on a regional, national and international basis.”

Image by Upix Photography.

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