The project, based at Queen's University, Belfast, and funded with a £2.5m government grant, aims to reduce raw material usage and improving polymer performance. Researchers hope to achieve this by harnessing nanotechnology - the technique of controlling and manipulating matter at near atomic scales to create new materials and devices. The interest of an international food giant like Danone reinforces claims that nanotechnology will be the next revolution in many industries, including food manufacturing and packaging. The funding for the Queen's project is being used for two new research investigations being carried out on polymer nanocomposites. Polymers consist of tiny molecules strung in long repeating chains. Nanocomposite materials offer a dramatic improvement in material performance, with significant increases in mechanical and gas barrier properties, according to the Queen's team. "The use of nanocomposites can result in the client getting a more effective product. Improved performance also allows products to be manufactured with less material leading to reductions in raw material, processing energy and product transportation costs." The research will focus on the processing route by which the nanoparticle-polymer mixture is formed into a final product. It will then aim to apply the knowledge gained to the development of proof of concept applications for industry. Researcher Eileen Harkin-Jones and her team will also be using complex computer-aided numerical modelling to predict the behaviour of materials under conditions that might otherwise be to difficult or costly to replicate. This method should allow manufacturers to exploit such materials to the full, the University stated. "The polymers industry currently contributes over £18bn per annum to the UK economy and the arrival of nanocomposites in recent years has opened up a whole new window for product development," Harkin-Jones said.
The groups involved in the research include: The School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Queen's, the University of Oxford, the University of Bradford, Danone, Smith and Nephew, Innovia Films, JGP Perrite and Boran-Mopack.