Grand challenges and research themes

Research themes

Our research is focused on solving the challenges we face today and is grouped into six different themes that overlap and support each other. Activities in these themes enable us to tackle the four wider quality-of-life challenges; energy, health and well being; sustainability and water.

  • Advanced functional materials and analytical science

    Our research develops, characterises and analyses a vast array of advanced functional materials. These range from responsive biomaterials for regenerative medicine, crystal growth and characterisation for the pharmaceutical industry, spectroscopic and optical characterisation of materials in the nuclear industry, gas sensing and biomolecular lab-on-a-chip detection and biomedical diagnostics. The foundation of all our research is to understand and control the molecular behaviour and properties of the advanced functional materials, to design products with new functionality and unravel the chemical pathways underpinning their production. State-of-the-art experimentation is combined with modelling to tackle the high complexity of the target products and applications. We also develop non-destructive testing, laser and optical fibre measurements, and laser modification of materials for optical and electronic devices and components. Research development and innovation in our group has impacted a vast range of industries and both materials and methodologies are being translated into the clinic.

    A few of these areas are given here:

    Biomaterials

    Our research in this area aims to elucidate the general rules underlying molecular design and self-assembly of polymer, peptide and protein-based materials in both bulk phase and at interfaces. The molecular building block-structure-property-processing relationships revealed in our work are being used to construct advanced materials whose structure and consequent function will be sensitive to desired environmental cues. Applications include the design of product formulations with targeted and temporal drug delivery performance, the modification of implant surfaces for enhancing cell attachment and proliferation, or 3-dimensional scaffolds for hosting or delivering cells for tissue regeneration. We use multidisciplinary approaches and regularly collaborate bioengineers, material scientists, chemists, surgeons and biologists.

    Crystal Chemistry Particle Process Engineering

    Research in this area seeks to connect the fundamentals of molecular and crystal structure with product properties and processing, impacting many central technological processes, such as crystallisation, consumer product formulation and industrial scale-up. This includes studying the importance of molecular interactions and minor impurities, nucleation and growth of molecular crystals from liquid phases and the possibility of controlling crystal structure (polymorphism), and the impact of particle processing methods. Applications are far-reaching, with direct relevance both to process design and product formulation of drugs, agrochemicals and foods.

    Medical Diagnostics

    Our research in this area exploits the latest developments in chemical spectroscopy, (mainly infrared and Raman spectroscopy), chemical sensing and microfluidic lab-on-a-chip technologies and applies them to bio and biomedical problems. In particular we are interested in developing automated methods of analysing biopsy samples to aid disease diagnosis. We work closely with clinical partners at the Christie Hospital and the Cancer Research UK Manchester Institute where we focus on the diagnosis of two of the most common forms of cancer namely prostate and breast. We are also using vibrational spectroscopy to study drug-cell interactions and we apply microfluidics to new systems for high-throughput analysis, which has applications in drug discovery and stem cell research.

    False colour image of the classified prostate tissue cores : red = malignant epithelium, orange = cancer associated stroma, green = normal epithelium, purple = normal stroma.

    False colour image of the classified prostate tissue cores : red = malignant epithelium, orange = cancer associated stroma, green = normal epithelium, purple = normal stroma.

    Sensors

    Research in sensors covers a range of applications including sensors for monitoring pH, moisture, turbidity of suspended solids, refractive index and particle scattering. Applications for these systems are varied and include process monitoring for water treatment, optimisation of jet engine design, in e-agriculture, structural health and pipe monitoring and biofouling and contamination in water cooling systems for electricity providers and paper manufacturers.

    One other area of sensing technology is the development of wearable and smart floor sensors. These are designed to measure movement, gait, balance, locus and other biometrics that can be used for medical monitoring and diagnosis of diseases and injuries that affect human movement.

    Nuclear Materials

    The main interest in this area is obtaining molecular understanding of radionuclide behaviour in processes that are relevant to the nuclear fuel cycle. This understanding can be used to improve currently established methods or develop novel procedures for the reprocessing, treatment and/or disposal of spent nuclear fuel and residues, and assist in the decommissioning of nuclear sites.

    Staff

    Peter Gardner | Roger Davey | Aline Miller | Krishna Persuad | Aurora Crubeza | Clint Sharrad | Patricia Scully | Joanna Stevens | Bernard Treves-Brown | Thomas Vetter

  • Biochemical and bioprocess engineering

    The Biochemical and Bioprocess Engineering group is focussed on the sustainable biological production of a wide range of products, from biofuels and chemicals to biopharmaceuticals, using a variety of multi-disciplinary experimental and computational technologies. Our research combines Chemical and Process Systems Engineering, Industrial Biotechnology, Molecular and Systems Biology, and Bioinformatics into novel cross-disciplinary approaches with the aim of designing new bioprocesses and innovative products from renewable sources. We take a holistic view on the process-product chain leading to sustainable production with increased economic viability, pollution prevention and conservation of resources.

    We work with a wide range of biomass sources, including seeds and grains, agricultural and food waste, lignocellulosics, microalgae, and biorefinery byproducts. We target the production of a spectrum of biofuels (such as biodiesel, bioethanol, biobutanol and microbial oil) and added-value chemicals and products (succinic acid, bioplastics, biosurfactants, biophenols, nutraceuticals) through the efficient use of fermentation and novel extraction processes. To achieve this we work with nature to maximize and optimise existing biochemical pathways that can be used in manufacturing, and capitilise on a wealth of developments in three fields of study related to cell developments: genomics, proteomics, and bioinformatics. Consequently, we apply new techniques to a large number of microorganisms ranging from bacteria, yeasts, and fungi to algae and mammalian cells where we take an integrated approach through the combination of experimental and computational tools to optimize both production rates and productivities.

    We also target the production of biopharmaceuticals, which are new medicines that can be made biologically, i.e. by directing cells using the spectrum of natural catalytic reactions, as they are too complex to be synthesized using simple chemistry. Technology now allows for production of many new medicines (eg protein antibodies) that can be used to detect and treat a wide range of debilitating disease conditions. Detection of cancer cells, delivery of toxic materials to selectively kill cancer cells and alleviation of diseases associated with inappropriate immune responses (e.g. rheumatoid arthritis) are all made possible by biopharmaceuticals. For optimal effectiveness, many therapeutic proteins require post-translational modifications, which can only be performed fully by mammalian cells. Thus, much attention has been focused by academic and industrial groups towards optimisation of mammalian cell systems (Bioprocessing) as hosts for high-level expression of commercially valuable recombinant proteins (Biopharmaceuticals). It is clear that the pipeline of biopharmaceuticals contains a number of potential “blockbuster” products. However, the biochemistry and physiology of host cell systems play profound roles in the level of expression and fidelity of the recombinant protein and can determine the market effectiveness for potential biopharmaeuticals.

    The group has vast expertise of all these key areas using innovative bioreactor designs, novel strains, cell lines and solvents and new separation processes and their integration into complete technologies with commercial potential. We are well placed to translate this research knowledge towards a wide range of industrial sectors including bioenergy, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals, to have a positive impact on the society, the environment and the economy.

    We develop scalable bioprocesses, which we take all the way from the laboratory to the pilot scale.

    We explore the role of neoteric solvents for developing sustainable biorefinery processes through a multi-scale approach that enables screening, selecting & designing novel task-specific solvents for target applications.

    Developing strategies for extracting useful products from waste materials using solid state fermentation processes.

    Staff

    Kostas Theodoropoulos | Alan Dickson | Ferda Mavituna | Colin Webb | Robin Curtis | Peter Martin | James Winterburn

  • Catalysis and porous materials

    Research in the Catalysis and Porous Materials group focuses on heterogeneous catalysis, membranes and separations, porous media, plasma processing and process analysis. We combine experimental and modelling approaches to provide predictive methods in order to optimize and develop overall processes for large scale implementation with our industrial partners. Advanced analytical techniques are routinely applied to these problems to examine surface species, structural changes and electronic effects as a function of the process conditions. This allows the non-invasive measurement of physical and chemical properties of flow fields. Of particular interest is the utilization of CO2, waste and biomass via the activation of molecules and processes under more benign conditions.

    In catalysis, gas and liquid phase heterogeneous catalytic processes are studied including emission control (deNOx, DOC, CH4), clean H2 production, selective hydrogenations, alkylations over zeolites, fine chemical synthesis, dehydrogenation and biomass processing. These are undertaken using thermal, non-thermal plasma and photocatalytic activation with a specific interest in understanding the structure-activity relationships to be able to design new catalytic materials and processes. The latter involves the development of state-of-the-art in-situ laboratory and central facility techniques using structural and spectroscopic probes such as neutron scattering, XAS, Raman, UV and IR spectroscopy, XRD, XPS and transient kinetic analysis. From this data we have developed the synthesis of a range of catalytic materials including structured foams and reactors, framework materials and supported metal catalysts with specific architectures.

    Our research also covers the development of novel membranes for studying the fundamental molecular transport through nanopores to several molecular separation problems relating directly to water purification, environmental clean-up, sustainable energy, and chemical production. We have the expertise to cover a wide range of membranes spanning from completely impermeable membranes to membranes for microfiltration and selectively proton conducting membranes. We cover materials such as polymers, graphene and other 2D materials, nanoparticles, ceramics, metallic films, imprinted materials and polymer composites. Our research includes preparation, characterization, and testing of membranes from laboratory scale to a large area, engineering the porosity and pore structure by chemical functionalization and developing surface modification strategy for fabricating antifouling and catalytic membranes. Currently, our efforts are mainly focusing on developing novel membranes for applications such as low temperature fuel cells (Hydrogen, direct methanol, formic acid and microbial), gas separation, pervaporation, desalination, membrane-assisted catalytic reactions, barrier coating, organic solvent nanofiltration, membranes for health care technology, and (bio) pharmaceutical purification. We develop sustainable separation and catalytic processes for both the fine chemical and the petrochemical sectors in collaboration with the industrial sector.

    Staff

    Philip Martin | Chris Hardacre | Xiaolei Fan | Arthur Garforth | Patricia Gorgojo-Alonso | Stuart Holmes | Rahul Raveendran Nair | Nima Shokri | Gyorgy Szekely

  • Multi-scale modelling

    Researchers in this group develop and use modelling and simulation tools to addresses major research challenges, from fundamental understanding of novel phenomena at atomic, molecular, meso-, micro- and macroscopic levels, to the prediction of industrially relevant fluid properties and equipment performance. This theme brings together a multidisciplinary team to study systems of both fundamental scientific importance and of practical relevance to the chemical industry. Our tools include quantum mechanics methods, molecular dynamics, Monte Carlo simulations, coarse grained simulations, dissipative particle dynamics, lattice Boltzmann, Computational Fluid Dynamics and mathematical theory.

    We complement and validate our predictions with experimentally measured properties, using materials characterisation techniques (gas adsorption, microscopy, etc) and a wide range of process analytics tools (tomography, rheometry, particle size, etc).

    As an example of the techniques we use, lets consider a polymeric system. Depending on the application, we can look at polymers in terms of the motions of the constituent atoms, or we can regard the polymer as being made up of coarse-grained units, each unit containing tens of atoms, or we can regard aggregates of polymers as effective, colloidal particles.

    Polymeric systems at different spatial and temporal scales: (a) Atomistic model (high resolution model), (b) Coarse-grained model (medium resolution model), and (c) Colloidal model (low resolution model).

    There are three main areas of work within our Theme:

    Soft Matter – from fundamentals to manufacturing

    Liquids, colloids, gels, foams, liquid crystals and polymers are all forms of soft matter. As well as their many industrial applications (paints, lubricants and shampoos to name just three), their science is fascinating and their formulation is challenging. We study the structural and dynamical properties of these systems with a combination of computer simulation (molecular dynamics, Monte Carlo and coarse-grained methodologies) and mathematical theory. We are also interested in understanding the rheological behaviour of complex mixtures in industrial mixing equipment and developing Direct Numerical Simulation (DNS) Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) modelling approaches to simulate the non-Newtonian behaviour of soft matter.

    Fluids at surfaces, in confinement and porous materials – characterisation and application

    Solid surfaces can influence significantly fluids behaviour. These effects are relevant in a number of industrial applications, from adsorption in porous materials, membrane separation, catalyst performance to the development of microfluidic devices. Our efforts in this area range from developing virtual models of porous materials to understand how packing of molecules create different porous geometries, and how surface chemistry affects the behaviour of adsorbed and confined fluids, to understanding fluid flow properties in porous media and microfluidic devices.

    Modelling and Simulation – methods development

    Incorporating the correct physics in the description of a system is essential for a meaningful model. This can be challenging in complex systems where relevant phenomena occurs at multiple length scales. Researchers in the group develop new approaches to understand catalytic pathways using ab initio calculations, hybrid models for multi-scale simulation of soft matter, theory of liquids, and dynamic Monte Carlo methods.

    Staff

    Flor Siperstein | Andrew Masters | Carlos Avendano | Pola Carbone | Sam de Visser | Alessandro Patti | Claudio Pererira da Fonte |  Thomas Rodger

  • Process integration

    Process integration of chemical processes focuses on the design, optimization, operational optimization and control of chemical and biochemical processes. This relates to processes in the petroleum, petrochemical, chemical, pharmaceutical and food processing industries. The emphasis is on a holistic approach to the process, rather than concentrating on individual operations, or the phenomena occurring in individual operations. The research in process integration started in the early 1980s with an emphasis on energy efficiency. The early focus was on systematic methods for the design of heat exchanger networks. Later, the ideas and techniques developed to solve the heat exchanger network problem provided the basis for the extension of the methodology into new areas. Although research in process integration now covers a much wider area than energy efficiency, the greatest emphasis is still placed on process design, retrofit and operational optimisation for energy reduction. Research is also focussed on maximising the sustainability of industrial systems, where efforts strive to satisfy human needs in an economically viable, environmentally benign, and socially beneficial way.

    The process integration research has for over 30 years been in a world leading position, both in terms of academic research and industrial application. Industrial support has been provided throughout from the Process Integration Research Consortium, a group of multinational companies that came together to support the research in process integration. Techniques developed in the research for energy recovery, integration of distillation systems, water system design and petroleum refinery hydrogen management have been adopted worldwide in both academic research into process design and industrial application.

    Process integration develops a holistic approach with the goal of ensuring that the individual parts of the process fit together in an optimal way.

    The research group also includes activities in petroleum engineering. This research focuses on the modelling of oil reservoirs and involves interdisciplinary collaboration with the School of Earth, Atmospheric and Environmental Sciences. Modelling of petroleum reservoirs is required for the prediction of reserves, planning the optimal development of the oil field, predicting future production, determining the optimal location of additional wells and reservoir management. Modelling is also necessary to exploit enhanced oil recovery, and the possible sequestration of CO2 in reservoirs, which can lead to increased recovery of crude oil from typically 20 to 40%, to 60% and more. Various techniques for this are being explored, including low salinity water flooding, polymer flooding, surfactant flooding techniques and CO2 injection. The ultimate goal of research in this area is to maximise the economic exploitation of oil reserves through step changes in the way reservoirs are exploited and the effective use of enhanced oil recovery.

    The optimal exploitation of oil reserves requires new approaches to the modelling of reservoirs.

    Staff

    Robin Smith | Mousad Babaei | Megan Jobson | Jie Li | Vahid Niasar | Rossmary Villegas | Nan Zhang

  • Sustainable industrial systems

    The main aim of our research is to help identify sustainable solutions for industrial systems on a life cycle basis, taking into account economic, environmental and social aspects. We work across different sectors and supply chains, including chemicals, energy, food and water. We collaborate with industry, government, NGOs and other organisations.

    We specialise in the following research areas:

    • Sustainable production and consumption
    • Life cycle sustainability assessment
    • Circular economy

    For further detail on the SIS group, including the list of projects and publications, visit www.sustainable-systems.org.uk.

    Sustainable production and consumption

    We define sustainable production and consumption as production and use of products and services in a manner that is economically viable, environmentally benign and socially beneficial over their whole life cycle. Our research looks at the interactions between technologies, consumption and policy to help identify more sustainable solutions for both producers and consumers.

    Professor Adisa Azapagic is also Editor-in-Chief of the journal Sustainable Production and Consumption, published by Elsevier. For details, visit: www.journals.elsevier.com/sustainable-production-and-consumption.

    Life cycle sustainability assessment

    All our research is underpinned by life cycle thinking. This means that we consider the sustainability of processes and products from ‘cradle to grave’, taking into account all activities from extraction of fuels and raw materials, through production and use to end-of-life management. To assess the sustainability of we use the following tools:

    • life cycle assessment (environmental sustainability)
    • life cycle costing (economic sustainability)
    • social life cycle assessment (social sustainability)

    We integrate the findings from the environmental, economic and social sustainability assessments using multi-criteria decision analysis to help identify most sustainable options. We also use the results to identify sustainability hotspots and opportunities for improvements. Among other sectors, we specialise in sustainability assessments in the energy and food industries. The SIS group is also the lead partner on the sustainability assessment in the UK Centre for Sustainable Energy Use in Food Chains (CSEF.

    Circular economy

    This research aims to maximise resource efficiency by identifying alternative approaches to the current linear ‘take-make-use-dispose’ consumption pattern. We specifically focus on helping companies implement circular economy principles into their everyday business. To support companies in their move to a circular business, we have developed a decision-support framework known as BECE (pronounced as ‘Becky’). BECE combines eco-design with backcasting to provide a step-by-step guide to organisations on how to incorporate circular economy thinking into business practice.

    CCaLC: Carbon footprinting tool to support environmental sustainability of industry

    One of our flagship outputs is CCaLC, an award-winning powerful tool for estimating carbon footprints along supply chains, helping to identify hotspots and opportunities for improvements. It provides a strategic framework for managing carbon emissions and integrating carbon management into existing business practice. In addition, CCaLC considers the effect of reducing carbon emissions on other environmental impacts and economic costs to help make more sustainable decisions. CCaLC can be used for engagement along supply chains, raising awareness and disseminating best practice for carbon reductions. CCaLC has won several prizes and has over 6000 users around the globe. This has resulted in significant environmental and socio-economic benefits, including estimated climate change mitigation gains in excess of £450m. It is free of charge and can be downloaded from www.ccalc.org.uk.

    Staff

    Adisa Azapagic | Rosa Cuellar-Franca | Laurence Stamford

  • Grand challenges

    To find out more about our research projects and those working to change the future of our world, please read through our blog to hear from our researchers and students first hand.

    Energy

    Climate change, declining oil reserves and increased energy demands are among the greatest challenges to our society in the 21st century. There is an urgent need for action. Work in Manchester is focussing on minimising current energy usage and harmful emissions, maximising the use of current oil reserves, in parallel with developing cost-effective alternative energy sources. Work is driven by a demand to meet future energy usage in an environmentally responsible manner.

    Health

    Our world faces an unprecedented level of health and well-being challenges due primarily to our ever-increasing global population, ageing demographic and ever-changing life-style choices. In parallel, the cost of discovering and taking new therapeutics to market is increasing exponentially and many of the exciting actives that show the most therapeutic potential are discarded by pharmaceutical companies due to the lack of suitable delivery vehicles or processing routes. Our multi-disciplinary research teams are working in this area to bring complex real world solutions to improve quality of life.

    Sustainability

    Sustainability is an inherent feature and underpinning philosophy across all our research. It is also a complex concept and covers a multitude of different areas including process design, innovative manufacturing, life cycle sustainability assessment and optimisation, clean and clean-up technologies and sustainable use of resources (water, energy, bio-feedstocks). The research in this area benefits from an integrated approach that combines science, engineering, environmental and socio-economic analysis.

    Water

    Water has previously been assumed to be a limitless, low-cost resource. However, there is now increasing awareness of the danger to the environment caused by over-extraction of water. At the same time, regulations are driving towards increased quality and safety of drinking water. Our research in this grand challenge area is tackling these problems using an integrative experimental and modelling approach and materials and methodologies developed have been widely adopted both academically and seen many successful practical applications industrially.

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