The Wilton Centre on Teesside is the focus of a breakthrough project which would enable one of the world’s most commonly-used plastics to be re-cycled.
The company behind it – Lucite International – is so confident of success that it has well-advanced plans to build a re-cycling plant in mainland Europe which would be up and running in just three years’ time.
David Smith, who is leading the project, described it as “seriously game changing” and said: “For Lucite it’s one of the biggest projects in years, because if we get this right we don’t just add value to Lucite and Mitsubishi Chemical (Lucite’s parent company), we potentially add value to the world because we’re cutting down on CO2 emissions and reducing landfill, for example. The benefits are incredible.”
The project team is using the laboratories and office space at the Wilton Centre to develop a circular economy which it is calling molecular recycling. It will take end-of-life acrylic products and reverse the production process to re-create the key raw material, Methyl Methacrylate (MMA) – the building block of all acrylic products.
Lucite International is the world’s biggest producer of MMA and its Cassel site in Billingham is the company’s largest plant.
Acrylic was developed by ICI on Teesside in the 1930s and is used in a multitude of products, such as lighting, car number plates and taillights, signage and medical equipment. The majority of the “sneeze screens”, which have been installed in buildings all over the world as a result of COVID-19, are also made of acrylic.
“When they come to the end of their life there will be thousands and thousands of these screens and what do you do with them?” said Mr Smith, the Circular Economy Programme Lead for Lucite International.
Only an estimated 10% of all the acrylic produced each year is re-cycled. Up until now the answer for end of life products is to incinerate them, bury them in landfill or ship them to countries like India where they are partially re-cycled. Even then, though, there can only be one further use of the re-cycled acrylic before it has to be scrapped.
At the Wilton Centre the Lucite project team is using technology developed by its American partner Agilyx to heat end-of-life acrylic causing its chemical bonds to break apart. The resulting crude oil is then purified to form untainted MMA and the process of making acrylic can start again.
The company has already identified four potential locations for its re-cycling plant and Mr Smith said the short timescale of the project is unprecedented.
“We’re approaching this in a new way – much faster and more like a start-up business. Normally chemical companies are extremely risk adverse. We’re taking a much more flexible approach than usual because we want to be first to market on this. We’re really committed to this and everybody believes in it and is really excited,” he said.
“The Wilton Centre is not only good from a geographic point of view. At lot of our smartest people are based there as well.”
Claire Morton, the accommodation manager at the Wilton Centre, said: “We are extremely proud to play a role in research which is so important and create a solution which, up until now, was thought to be unachievable.”
Earlier this year it was revealed that the work of two other companies based at the centre could play a major role in attempts to develop a vaccine for COVID-19.