Applicants are invited to apply for a fully funded PhD programme to investigate the creation of biodegradable fibres from bacteria-generated bioplastics, i.e. polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs), with appealing mechanical competence and functionalities. Our vision is to exploit this new platform for the manufacture of biodegradable face masks that safely degrade in the environment, to reduce plastic pollution.
The polymerisation of petroleum hydrocarbons and the limited biodegradability of synthetic polymers (other than aliphatic polyesters) pose inherent challenges on their long-term use, due to greenhouse gas emissions during production and environmental accumulation (microplastics). This situation has been exacerbated by the current pandemic, which has resulted in an unprecedented rise of disposable face masks. There is therefore a pressing need for petroleum-free biodegradable polymers that can replace current synthetic polymers with comparable performance. Applicants are invited to apply for a fully funded PhD programme to deliver on this vision by exploiting the metabolic activity of bacteria to accomplish new polymer libraries. Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are a family of biocompatible polyesters produced by bacteria that can safely be degraded in the human body and the environment. PHAs have been approved by the FDA for use in medical sutures, although their applicability in healthcare is still at its infancy, due to challenging polymer processability (brittleness) and low quantity of bacterial production. The experimental work will be conducted at the interface of biopolymer chemistry and microbiology, aiming to generate new customised PHA derivatives for tailored fibre manufacture. This research ultimately aims to develop biodegradable fibres for the sustainable manufacture of antimicrobial face masks that minimise disease transmission and reduce plastic pollution. The applicant must have a good background in biopolymer chemistry and/or microbiology, with a good understanding of polymer fibres and technical textiles also desirable.