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Norwich company aims to reduce emissions with plant-based composites

23 November 2022

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With a growing focus on sustainability across all industries, Cellexcel, a company based at the University of East Anglia (UEA) at Norwich Research Park, has launched a new technology to enhance the performance and increase the usage of plant-based materials in manufacturing. Its technology is forecast to extend and accelerate the adoption of biomaterials, leading to a significant reduction in greenhouse gases.

Cellexcel is a spin-out company from UEA and was formed to take advantage of the rapid growth forecast for the use of composite materials in industry. The market was worth $23bn in 2021 and is expected to grow to $80bn by 2029. The ability to replace materials, which generate CO2 emissions, with biomaterials has become a matter of urgency across multiple industries, including automotive and aerospace.

Cellexcel’s technology was created through the work of Prof Richard Stephenson, CSO of Cellexcel and Emeritus Professor School of Chemistry at UEA, which is a partner organisation of Norwich Research Park, one of the world’s most acclaimed centres for bio-based science research.

Tim Pryce, executive chair of Cellexcel, said: “There are major benefits to Cellexcel of working with great associates at both UEA and Norwich Research Park. Firstly, they provide a great technical resource, right on our doorstep, but critically, the team at Anglia Innovation Partnership LLP – the science park management company at Norwich Research Park that manages campus-wide initiatives – facilitated pre-seed funding that enabled us to prepare our business plans, retain talented staff and introduce key people drivers, within multi-national global businesses.

“It’s provided a great launch pad for Cellexcel and will be able to do the same for other spin-out companies.”

Composites, as the name suggests, are materials that are made up of a number of different elements – a reinforcement material embedded in a resin. Some of the most common in use are fibre glass reinforced resins and carbon fibre reinforcing materials, and along with thermoplastics they are used to make components such as panels for cars, aircraft and high-performance bicycles. Traditional composites like these, as with polycarbonate plastics, consume a massive amount of energy in their manufacture and thus create high CO2 emissions.

A change to bio-based composites made from materials like flax or hemp would make a measurable  difference. Not only do they not need as much energy in the manufacturing process, growing a field of hemp or flax in the first place will absorb a significant amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

As an example, if fibreglass material was replaced with a bio-composite, then approximately three tonnes of CO2 per tonne of fibreglass would be saved. With such rampant growth in demand forecast for composites, replacing fibre glass and carbon fibre with bio-composites could become a positive contributor to the environment.

Currently, bio-composites account for just 6pc of the market. The big challenge is how to replace thermoplastics and fibreglass with bio-materials. If the market moves from a 6pc to 12pc bio-composite usage, that is a $10bn opportunity.

Cellexcel’s primary technology is focused on enhancing the water resistance properties of flax and hemp materials, enabling them to then be employed in a much wider range of applications, from lawnmowers, to drones and external automotive panels.

In dry environments, like the inside of a car, bio-composites work well, but for exteriors there is a need to improve their performance. Cellexcel is applying an innovative approach to this and is chemically modifying the plant material to enhance their properties, such as water resistance.

Cellexcel is looking to expand its product portfolio and technology offering and believes that it can make in-roads into both the aviation and automotive sectors as well as other high-performance applications.

Tim said: “The demand for bio-composites is being driven by industries seeking more sustainable solutions. The technology advances in this area are proving to be attractive to investors who view sustainability as a key shareholder goal. The desire to reduce emissions will lead to the ultimate success of bio-composites being adopted on a large scale.”

Nick Goodwin, COO of Anglia Innovation Partnership LLP, said: “Cellexcel is a great example of the commercialisation of research taking place at Norwich Research Park. These are people with ingenious ideas, working hard to develop and test them in laboratories and workshops and then, with data to prove their theories, they leap into business to maximise the societal impact by setting up a company, developing a plan and raising money to fund their new idea.

“We have been working with Tim, and his team, to fund early-stage business formation activity and helped to put in place some options for seed funding, to enable future growth. Without doubt, the reduction of carbon emissions in manufacturing is a global challenge and it’s one that people here at Norwich Research Park are making significant progress in addressing – something that we can all be really proud of.”

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Main Image: Tim Pryce, executive chair of Cellexcel. Credit: CellExcel


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