Polymers and composites
Our polymers and composites researchers develop advanced polymers and multi-functional composites as foundations for a sustainable future.
Polymers and composites impact every aspect of our lives, underpinning our built environment, energy systems, healthcare and consumer goods industries. Our research activities are equally diverse and include bio-inspired morphing composites, 3D printable polymers, self-healing and stimuli-responsive polymers, recyclable and biodegradable plastics, fibres and hydrogels for medical innovations and advanced polymers for sustainable energy generation.
We impart this functionality through a variety of methodologies including the preparation of colloidal nanoparticles and nanocomposites, synthetic control of polymer tacticity and topology, and control of processing parameters such as extrusion, fibre spinning, coating and curing. The exceptional characterisation capabilities of the Department of Materials allow us to understand our systems and those of our industrial partners, helping to deliver resilient solutions to societal challenges in plastic packaging, aerospace, personal healthcare, formulations and coatings.
Polymers and composites research is making a significant societal impact, as demonstrated by our case studies:
Coatings in space: Designing and testing 2D-material-enhanced coatings for improving low-earth orbit satellite
Scientists and engineers from The University of Manchester are leading the DISCOVERER EU Horizon 2020 consortium of 8 institutions from 5 different countries to develop disruptive technologies for very low earth orbit (VLEO) satellites, aiming to radically redesign of Earth observation (EO) satellites for sustained operation at much lower altitudes than the current state of the art. These next generation satellites would be smaller, less massive and less expensive to launch, but would still achieve the same or even better resolution and data products than today’s platforms. This in turn would reduce the cost of maritime surveillance, intelligence and security, precision agriculture and food security, land management and disaster monitoring.
Manchester is leading the innovation in materials and coatings for improving the aerodynamic performance of satellites and resistance to atomic oxygen, reducing drag and increasing orbital lifetimes.
Polymer samples with innovative 2D-material-based coatings manufactured in Manchester have already been flown on the International Space Station and exposed to the space environment as part of the MISSE programme with a second set of samples due to be launched in 2021. These samples are subjected to intense solar radiation, atomic oxygen, highly reactive gas species specific to VLEO environments, as well as thermal cycling as the ISS moves in and out of orbit every 90 minutes.
In parallel, a hyperthermal atomic oxygen wind tunnel has been built in Manchester to reproduce similar flow conditions to those experienced by satellites in low and very low Earth orbits. Materials developed at the University will soon be exposed in the wind tunnel to identify and validate novel materials for satellite coatings.
To fully validate the aerodynamic performance of these novel coating materials, along with other advances for VLEO satellite operation, a CubeSat has been designed and built which will deploy large panels covered in the materials. The satellite is currently undergoing final integration and testing for launch in 2021 to the International Space Station (ISS) for release into orbit. During its mission the satellite will be commanded from a ground station in Manchester, and will pave the way for future innovations in VLEO platforms.
Dr Steve Edmondson, Senior Lecturer in Polymer Science at The University of Manchester and the materials lead on the DISCOVERER project said “This project provides a unique opportunity to test new materials and coatings for VLEO in three parallel experiments: on the ground in our hyperthermal wind tunnel, on the ISS for real VLEO exposure and sample-return, and on a testbed satellite where the aerodynamic benefits can be explored. With our innovative 2D-material-based technology, we aim to develop coatings with excellent resistance to the erosive VLEO environment which can specularly reflect the flow. This will lead to significant reductions in drag, allowing satellites to operate at lower altitudes, and can also generate useable lift for aerodynamic control of the satellites attitude, for example.”
Footnote: Alpha Space owns and operates the MISSE facility under agreements with NASA and the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS).
Graphene has been used to improve the grip and durability of running shoes following a collaboration between scientists at the Department of Materials and a North-West SME.
In 2016, new research was published by Dr Aravind Vijayaraghavan and his Nanofunctional Materials Group, which revealed how graphene could significantly improve the mechanical properties of rubber. Following this, Ian Bailey, the CEO of Cumbria-based sports brand inov-8, reached out to the team to ask whether it would be possible to create a new line of running and fitness footwear incorporating this new advancement.
On the back of two successful funding applications, the scientists and the company came together and work began on the new outsole technology in early 2017.
The shoes strike the perfect balance between grip and durability. Typically, soft rubber provides a firm grip for sports like fell running and ultra-marathons – but it also wears down faster. Graphene changes all this by overcoming this compromise.
"Leading the way"
The scientists at the Department of Materials created a clever compound of graphene-infused rubber, resulting in outsoles that are 50% stronger, 50% harder wearing and 50% more elastic than the non-graphene compound. The resultant shoes have proved hugely popular – with one model selling out just a month after it launched. Now, inov-8 and the Department are working on a long-term partnership to further enhance sportswear products with graphene.
Michael Price, Product and Marketing Director at inov-8, said: "Through intensive research, hundreds of prototypes and thousands of hours of testing in both the field and laboratory, athletes now no longer need to compromise."
"Graphene is super-light and super-strong, so we can reduce product weight while maintaining strong performance. There’s also process innovation; how we create the composites. We’re leading the way and will continue to push our leadership position. It’s very exciting," added Dr Vijayaraghavan.
For more information, see the product page on the inov-8 website.
Scientists at The University of Manchester have co-founded a new company, Manchester BIOGEL (formerly PeptiGelDesign), based at the BioHub, Alderley Park, which is dedicated to the commercialisation of an innovative hydrogel technology developed at the University.
Work on the peptide-based hydrogels started back in 2004 when Professor Aline Miller (Department of Chemical Engineering) and Professor Alberto Saiani (Department of Materials) were awarded a small seed fund of £4,000 from the University. This prompted them to establish, within the University, the Polymers and Peptide Research Group, which is located at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology. They went on to build on this initial project by attracting over £6 million in funding to the University from public and private bodies over the past 10 years. This has led to the development of a technological platform for the design of peptide-based hydrogels, which are now being applied in biomedical and biotechnological fields in areas such as tissue engineering, drug delivery and DNA sensing.
"A true success story"
The technology is based on understanding and controlling the self-assembly of small peptides across the length scales to permit the design of bespoke hydrogel materials. Professor Julie Gough (Department of Materials) became involved in the early stage development of these materials for cell culture and tissue engineering applications and she said: "This highly innovative technology actually works. It allows the design of materials that can be tailored to mimic the three-dimensional micro-environment in which we culture cells. Cells have very different requirements depending on their origin, nature and function and this technology allows the design of hydrogels with properties and functionality tailored to each cell type. This opens up new possibilities in cell culture and tissue engineering fields."
Professor Aline Miller, who led the original seed project, said: "This is a true success story. We started over ten years ago with a fundamental science project for which we were awarded a small pot of internal faculty money to do proof-of-concept work and here we are ten years later co-founding a company to sell the novel materials we developed."
Dr Guillaume Saint-Pierre who co-founded the company in 2014 with Professors Miller and Saiani and was its first CEO until June 2018 said: "It was a unique experience to be able to take a novel technology from academia to industry. This is a great technology raising significant interest wherever I go. One of the most exiting aspects is that it is an enabling technology, allowing scientists in academia and industry to do novel research using a platform of innovative materials that can be tailored to their needs, whether it is defined 3D functional scaffolds for cell culture, tissue engineering and tissue model generation or injectable and sprayable hydrogels for the in-vivo delivery of stem cells and/or drugs. The commercialisation of the materials will hopefully allow unlocking their full potential by making them widely available to scientists across the world".
Professor Alberto Saiani said: "This has been an astonishing journey through which we have moved from fundamental material science to process development to create a commercial product, thus showing the value that research can create and the importance of University seed funds. On our way we collaborated, and are still collaborating, with a number of great scientists across the University. We are now working closely with Manchester BIOGEL, UMIP (University of Manchester Intellectual Property) and the University to develop the next generation of materials. It is also rewarding to see now scientist using the materials in their research and publishing innovative and exiting new work".