UKRI pumps in £100m to transform engineering biology projects

Article by Adam Duckett

Researchers will harness and adapt nature for mining, remediation, and plastics recycling

RESEARCHERS working to combat plastic pollution, improve metals circularity, and develop novel food production are among those set to benefit from a £117m (US$149m) cash injection from UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), aimed at unlocking the potential of engineering biology.

Led by UK universities, six hubs are each receiving up to £12m to support five years of work.

Twenty-two “mission awards” projects will complement the hubs, receiving a share of £30m across two years. The mission awards aim to expand engineering biology disciplines and communities, building on existing UK strengths and emerging opportunities.

The UK government defines engineering biology as the design, scaling, and commercialisation of biology-derived products and services that can transform sectors or produce existing products more sustainably.

Bio-mining and remediation

The Engineering Biology Mission Hub for Environmental Processing and Recovery of Metals (ELEMENTAL) led by the University of Kent, will use biology to recover and recycle rare earth elements (REEs). These are critical for clean energy technologies but have limited availability, while their extraction is environmentally damaging.

Project leader Martin Warren will work with partners to establish an open knowledge hub to enhance ongoing projects related to mineral extraction, urban mining, industrial waste, and nuclear waste, relying on engineering biology tools and approaches. Examples include using microorganisms to extract metals (bioleaching) or to break down contaminants in polluted water and land (bioremediation). The team will also explore phytomining, using plants to extract metals and REEs from soil.

Another hub, the Environmental Biotechnology Innovation Centre (EBIC), will focus on advancing the properties and functions of microorganisms to create more effective methods for monitoring the environment and removing pollutants. Led by Cranfield University, researchers will use synthetic biology to develop microorganisms that can target and mitigate the negative impacts of substances such as plastic waste, hydrocarbons, metals, and oil. As well as cleaning up these hazardous and toxic pollutants from the environment, the team aims to use the microorganisms to help regenerate and recycle waste.

“They may be tiny, but microorganisms have ‘superhero’ properties which give them enormous potential to have a positive impact on our world,” said Frederic Coulon, professor of environmental chemistry and microbiology at Cranfield, and EBIC project lead.

This article is adapted from an earlier online version.

Article by Adam Duckett

Editor, The Chemical Engineer

Recent Editions

Catch up on the latest news, views and jobs from The Chemical Engineer. Below are the four latest issues. View a wider selection of the archive from within the Magazine section of this site.