DCU project tackling plastic use wins €2.4m in SFI challenge

5 Oct 2022

The Grain-4-Lab team from left: Dr Brian Freeland, Samantha Fahy, Dr Jennifer Gaughran, Dr Keith Rochfort and Dr Susan Kelleher. Image: Julien Behal Photography

The Grain-4-Lab team is working to reduce plastic use in labs by utilising waste produced from the brewing and distilling industry.

A team of researchers from Dublin City University working to reduce plastic use in labs has won the Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) Plastics Challenge.

The Grain-4-Lab team, led by Dr Jennifer Gaughran and Dr Brian Freeland, has been awarded €2.4m to help scale up the process.

SFI’s Plastic Challenge is one of several under the Future Innovator Prize programme, which the agency launched in 2018 to encourage researchers to tackle societal problems through challenge-based funding. This competitive model is now playing a key role in directing research activity in Ireland.

Last year, Grain-4-Lab was one of 10 teams that were shortlisted for the plastic-focused challenge funding.

The researchers found two issues that could be solved together. Firstly, they noted that native waste streams from breweries and distilleries in Ireland are underutilised.

They also found that the use and disposal of fossil fuel-based plastics from Irish labs to incineration and landfill is a persisting sustainability issue.

The Grain-4-Lab team’s solution involves transforming these waste streams into polylactic acid, which can be used to manufacture compostable bioplastics for use in the lab.

The winning team was announced today (5 October) by Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science Simon Harris, TD.

“The project is aimed at developing a solution to tackle plastic usage in Irish research laboratories by using waste produced from the brewing and distilling industry in Ireland,” Harris said.

“This is the leadership we need to help us meet our climate targets – innovative solutions and dynamic leadership.”

The other members of the team are Samantha Fahy, Dr Susan Kelleher and Dr Keith Rochfort.

Speaking about the award, Gaughran said society is producing too much plastic from non-renewable sources, while also sending too much to incineration and landfill.

“This funding will allow us to make great strides in sustainability by creating new, compostable plastics from waste that will help to combat this growing challenge facing our planet,” Gaughran said.

The Grain-4-Lab team plans to focus on scaling up the process for the manufacture of lab components, starting with petri dishes and extending to other consumables. They will also continue to validate their approach and develop commercialisation plans for their technology.

A runner-up prize of €250,000 was awarded to the Microplastics-free Plastics team, led by Prof John Boland from Trinity College Dublin. This project aims to minimise the release of micro and nano-plastics from various plastic products.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic