University of Portsmouth scientists, who have engineered an enzyme that can break down some of the world’s most commonly polluting plastics, have been awarded £5.8 million through the Government’s modern Industrial Strategy.
The investment from the Research England Expanding Excellence Fund, coupled with significant investment by the University of Portsmouth, will speed up progress towards finding a solution to one of the world’s greatest environmental challenges – plastic waste.
Universities and Science Minister Chris Skidmore said: “Pushing the boundaries of knowledge and conquering new innovations are what our universities are known for the world over. This programme led by the University of Portsmouth will look at how enzymes can break down single-use plastics and help cut plastics pollution.
The Expanding Excellence in England Fund will support projects throughout England to master new and developing areas of research and industry.
Made possible through our record R&D spend delivered by our modern Industrial Strategy, the investment will support researchers to develop solutions and opportunities for UK researchers and businesses.”
In April 2018, researchers led by Professor John McGeehan at the University of Portsmouth and Dr Gregg Beckham at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado, announced they had engineered an enzyme which could digest polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastic, returning it to its original monomers, or building blocks.
Their discovery offered the first glimmer of hope that we can take an enzyme from the natural environment and adapt it in the laboratory to tackle some of our most polluting plastics.
PET plastic is commonly used to make the 20,000 single-use plastic bottles manufactured every second worldwide. The team’s discovery paved the way for a future in which PET could be infinitely recycled, re-used, and even made into higher value materials – a fundamental shift in recycling.
The funding will allow the appointment of both junior and senior researcher scientists to join the expanding team at the University of Portsmouth’s newly established Centre for Enzyme Innovation (CEI).
Professor McGeehan, who is Director of the CEI, said: “This is a global challenge that requires a global team and it is incredibly exciting that Portsmouth is trailblazing research and innovation in this key area.”
The centre will focus on finding enzymes capable of breaking down different types of plastic and then engineering these to be fast enough to be deployed at industrial recycling facilities.
It has three teams, one focused on finding new enzymes in the environment which can break down different types of plastics; another to engineer these enzymes and systems to make them more efficient and robust; and a third to work with our industry partners to make these engineered enzymes suitable for large-scale production.
Professor McGeehan said: “From David Attenborough’s ‘Blue Planet II’ through to his latest programme, ‘Climate Change – The Facts’, we are all now increasingly aware of the urgency of tackling plastic pollution and climate change.
It is of the utmost importance that the UK Government has recognised the need to fund research and innovation in this area and I am delighted that Research England has awarded substantial resources to take our fundamental science through to real-world industrial and environmental applications.
With a £5.8 million investment in our new Centre for Enzyme Innovation, we are now in a position to develop innovative recycling solutions for our most commonly polluting plastics.”
The University of Portsmouth’s Vice-Chancellor, Professor Graham Galbraith, said: “Government funding, together with our own, is helping establish and build a world-leading research centre directly tasked with tackling the problem of plastic pollution.
The new Centre is now positioned to scale-up and expand the excellence of a small group of researchers and accelerate the pace of research to deliver transformative enzyme-enabled solutions for circular recycling of plastics.
We are proud of what Portsmouth researchers have already achieved in engineering an enzyme which can digest one of the most pernicious pollutants of our age, and we are excited about where work done at our new Centre for Enzyme Innovation will allow us to go.
One of the overarching goals of our research strategy is to focus researchers’ minds, time and effort in addressing the most pressing problems facing the world.”