The University of Manchester is to take part in a multi-million pound project to produce more eco-friendly chemicals for multiple industries.
The £8.5 million project, called ROBOX, is an initiative brainstormed by Horizon 2020, the European Union’s biggest ever research and innovation programme.
Led by Dutch firm DSM, ROBOX aims to transform the way in which chemicals are manufactured for the pharmaceutical, food and materials industries.
Researchers from Manchester will work alongside a host of other universities and companies from across Europe to develop sustainable alternatives to current industrial oxidation processes.
Most chemicals are synthesised industrially using a catalyst to either speed up the process or spark it into action.
Many of these catalysts are themselves created artificially and their use can result in unwelcome environmental side effects.
These chemical oxidations frequently use environmentally damaging solvents, toxic metals and dirty compounds.
An alternative to artificial catalysts is the use of biocatalysts, such as protein enzymes. These can be found in nature and then further developed for optimal use in industry.
This is a much cleaner way of manufacturing chemicals and can even result in higher-quality products.
Many examples of biocatalysts can be found in the human body, such as the enzyme that breaks down alcohol.
A major advantage of biocatalysts is the fact that they often only require very tame conditions, such as room temperature, neutral pH and standard atmospheric pressure.
They do, however, often need to be tailored to the chemical conditions appropriate for the reaction in question.
ROBOX will use biocatalysis to demonstrate that safe and sustainable substitutes to traditional chemical manufacturing methods can be introduced to the industry.
Manchester’s main contribution to the project will be to develop and use these new techniques, specifically focusing on Cytochrome P450 enzymes. This will produce drug metabolites, which can then be used to improve new drugs and make them safer to use.
This will be overseen by the University of Manchester’s Professor Nicholas Turner, who works at the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology.
Professor Turner said: “A lot of the processes we use currently are expensive and not very cost effective.
“This is a unique opportunity for academic groups to work alongside chemical companies and specialist SMEs to develop innovative biocatalytic processes for applying oxidation for chemical synthesis.
“We believe that challenging problems of this nature are best solved on a pan-European basis by bringing together under one roof the combined expertise of many groups to establish a world-class research hub in biocatalysis and sustainable chemical synthesis.”