Five new research collaborations with industry have been awarded a share of £100,000 to fund innovative new projects across science, engineering and health.

From tackling sediment erosion to investigating the antimicrobial properties of ‘essential oils’ and the development of a low cost robotic arm for fruit and veg harvesting, each new project brings together academics at the University of Plymouth with a business partner.

Delivered in partnership with Thomas Westcott Chartered Accountants, the R&D Solutions Fund is designed to stimulate industrial collaborations and knowledge transfer opportunities between researchers and businesses, aiming to solve specific business problems. It’s also designed to act as a catalyst for businesses to gain even greater access to the University’s facilities such as the COAST Lab, the Plymouth Electron Microscopy Centre and the Digital Fabrication Laboratory.

Among the five to be successful is a collaboration between international civil engineering and environmental hydraulics agency, HR Wallingford Ltd, and Dr Robert Schindler, a Research Associate in the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences. Together they will be conducting research into whether biopolymers – a natural biological glue – might be an effective tool to prevent sediment erosion around structures in the marine environment.

Using the University’s COAST Lab, the team will mix different biopolymers with sand at different concentrations to examine what force is required to erode each mixture. They will also test durability of biopolymers over a much longer timescale to determine how long they will persist in the seabed.

“Erosion occurs naturally – it’s a balance between the sediments’ (rocks, sand, clay) natural strength versus the force of the currents and waves acting on it,”

said Rob.

“When you put a structure in the ocean – such as a windfarm or bridge support – this vastly increases the forces acting on the sediment because it creates a big pressure gradient. Engineers account for this in various ways, such as ensuring supports go well below the riverbed or seabed, and by using ‘armour’ around the structure, such as concrete, rocks, or plastic mesh. But this is both very expensive to make and install, and is environmentally damaging. The approach we are testing is different. Instead of armouring the surface we will modify the sediment itself to make it more resistant to erosive forces. The approach is supported by conservation agencies such as Natural England and the Ocean Conservation Trust who believe it may be a way of reducing the negative effects of our use of seas and rivers.”

Rob’s past research has found that some organisms living in aquatic environments produce biopolymers that are very effective at increasing the stability of sediments, binding grains together. Many are now used in different industrial settings, such as food thickening agents and paper manufacture.

“This funding will enable us to see whether we can mimic this natural process,”

he added.

“A nature-based solution to erosion would have potentially huge benefits in economic and environmental terms.”

The other four projects to receive the R&D Solutions Fund are:

  • Dr Arunangsu Chatterjee and Dr Rebecca Baines, who will be working with The Joy App on ‘The impact of social prescribing in a digital era: a feasibility study using Normalisation Process Theory.’
  • Dr Maozhou Meng and Composite Innovations Ltd, who will work on the development of a high-performance composite marine propeller
  • Dr Ian S Howard and Fieldwork Robotics, who will produce a low cost compliant robotic arm for fruit and vegetable harvesting
  • The Plant Factory (Prof Mick Fuller, Dr Lynn McCallum and Dr Phil Warburton), who will work with Cornish Essential Oils to examine the antimicrobial properties of their products.

The R&D Solutions Fund was established by the University to support the business community during the pandemic. Adrian Dawson, Director of Research & Innovation at the University, said:

“The response over the first two rounds of funding has been exceptional – we’ve received a wealth of innovative applications from across different disciplines and industrial sectors, and that shows the sheer appetite for research and development. Bringing together businesses with world-class research and facilities is one of the ways we can help underpin a high-growth, high-skilled economy.”

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