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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/S000380/1
Title: Intelligent Continuous-flow Polymer Synthesis
Principal Investigator: Warren, Dr N J
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Department: Chemical and Process Engineering
Organisation: University of Leeds
Scheme: New Investigator Award
Starts: 01 June 2018 Ends: 31 May 2020 Value (£): 305,734
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Materials Synthesis & Growth
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Manufacturing
Related Grants:
Panel History:
Panel DatePanel NameOutcome
25 Apr 2018 EPSRC Physical Sciences - April 2018 Announced
Summary on Grant Application Form
This project will develop novel, artificially intelligent (AI) continuous-flow (CF) platforms for the manufacture of complex polymers. The aim is to open new design opportunities for sophisticated pharmaceuticals, while ensuring commercial manufacture is cost-effective, green and safe.

Polymers are long chain molecules which interact with each other in a manner which results in a diverse range of physical properties. Polymeric materials are often extremely strong, flexible and insulating. Due to their diversity, more polymers are manufactured than any other man-made material. Without them we would not be able maintain our current quality of life.

Often overlooked are 'speciality' or 'precision' polymers, which are present in many high-tech or performance products such as electronics, pesticides, lubricants, coatings and pharmaceuticals. Block copolymers, where two distinct polymer chains are tethered together, are of particular interest; especially when each block has considerably different properties. Although these are manufactured on a much smaller scale, they are often key contributors to a products functionality. Perhaps the most complex applications are within healthcare (e.g. drug delivery), where the drive toward 'personalised medicine' will benefit from polymers which are able to respond to local conditions (e.g. temperature or pH in a tumour). These can be used for patient specific, targeted and controlled delivery of drugs. These products will never become a reality unless precise, cost-effective and reproducible methods of manufacture are developed.

Continuous-flow is an alternative method of manufacturing chemicals to traditional stirred tanks. It involves continuously pumping the reaction medium through specially designed reactors meaning only a very small amount of material is under reaction conditions at any one time. The benefits of this technique are becoming more relevant in the drive for a sustainable manufacturing. It is often regarded as the greenest, safest and most cost-effective method of chemical manufacture. It is also a multi-scale technique, which is a considerable advantage since the demand for speciality polymers is likely to fluctuate significantly. In this context, larger volumes of product can be prepared by simply running the system for longer, removing any considerations that would be required with batch scale-up.

One of the most interesting aspects is the facile incorporation of online monitoring and feedback technology. This is essentially creating artificially intelligent (AI) reactors which will be able to immediately modify conditions to achieve the desired product without human intervention. This provides additional efficiency and potential cost savings.

During this project, a suitable continuous-flow reactor will be designed, constructed and evaluated for synthesis of a water based block copolymer. Following this, additional monitoring equipment will be added which will enable remote programming. Real-time monitoring of the conditions and the polymer produced will feed into a program capable of changing the conditions to achieve a product with a composition within defined limits. The system will subsequently be used to synthesise polymers which can respond to local temperature or pH by transitioning between soluble chains and particles. These particles will be capable of encapsulating an active ingredient, and releasing it during the transition to soluble chains which occurs on encountering specific conditions (e.g. inside a tumour).

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Organisation Website: http://www.leeds.ac.uk