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Biodegradable plastic: understanding the chemistry and its environmental impact

School of Biological & Chemical Sciences

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Prof Marina Resmini , Dr Emiliano Bilotti No more applications being accepted Funded PhD Project (European/UK Students Only)

About the Project

Research Environment
Queen Mary University of London is one of the UK’s leading research-focused higher education institutions, a member of the elite Russell Group of UK universities, and ranked joint 9th in the UK in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. Queen Mary has a strong tradition of materials-based research which continues to grow successfully with multidisciplinary collaborative research programs, underpinned by centres of excellence such as the Materials Research Institute ( The Chemistry Department is part of the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, within the Faculty of Science and Engineering, and it is housed in a modern building, equipped with state-of-the art analytical facilities.

This PhD position is one of four parts of a mini Centre for Doctoral Training (CDT) funded by Queen Mary. BIOdegradable Plastics as emerging Environmental Pollutants (BioPEP) is a multidisciplinary consortium of 6 Queen Mary academics from three schools (SBCS, SEMS and Geography) partnered with 7 non-academic teams and 1 European team, that aims to evaluate the potential environmental impact of biodegradable plastics.
Training and Development
This is a truly interdisciplinary CDT, where material chemists will test bioplastic materials and provide them to molecular biologists to study their degradation. The impacts of these differentially degraded bioplastics will then be tested on abiotic river habitats by geographers, and the effect on aquatic communities characterised by ecologists and microbiologists. Each student will have three supervisors, including a senior and a junior academic from different but related fields and one industrial partner, who will ensure the industrial impact of the PhD project. Each student will spend at least two months seconded at a partner industry, which will provide practical skills and an essential network of contacts for future employability.
Project Details
The impact, behaviour and fate of plastic polymers in the environment is the subject of global concern and debate. One of the approaches taken to address this issue has been the development of new materials, such as biodegradable polymers, including crop-based hydrodegradable, compostable plastics and oxo-biodegradable plastic. Industries are quickly adopting these new materials and their use is increasing exponentially, however to date there is very limited knowledge of the degradation pathway, from a chemical perspective, and of the impact on the environment from such biodegradable materials and their breakdown products. There is increasing concern that biodegradable polymers may have a similar negative impact on the environment as traditional plastics, for example, through the formation of microparticles due to incomplete degradation and/or the generation of toxic metabolic by-products. This project will aim to answer some of these questions:how do biopolymers with different chemical structure degrade in the environment, what is the molecular structure of the degradation products and what are the factors controlling the degradation process? Degradation will be evaluated for a variety of samples by monitoring bacterial respiration using gas chromatography, a method adapted at Queen Mary, specifically for this purpose. The bacteria are cultivated in a fully defined aqueous media where plastic samples are the only carbon source. The effect of environmental factors such as light, temperature and time, on the chemical structure of the plastic both before and after biodegradation will be evaluated. This will allow us to fully characterise the metabolic waste generated during biodegradation.
Applications are invited from outstanding candidates with or expecting to receive a first or upper-second class honours degree in Chemistry. Candidates currently studying or holding a Master degree will be given priority in the selection process. A strong interest in multidisciplinary projects and a passion for materials chemistry are essential. Desire to work across disciplines is also a priority.

Applicants from outside of the UK are required to provide evidence of their English language ability. Please see our English language requirements page for details:

The School of Biological and Chemical Sciences is committed to promoting diversity in science; we have been awarded an Athena Swan Bronze Award. We positively welcome applications from underrepresented groups.

Funding Notes

This studentship is open to UK/EU applicants and is funded by Queen Mary University of London. It will cover tuition fees, and provide an annual tax-free maintenance allowance for 3 years at the Research Council rate (£17,009 in 2019/20).
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