Light fantastic — research to transform manufacturing technologies

A blue laser light
11 Feb 2014 09:00:00.000
Research projects at The University of Nottingham that will explore how light can be used in innovative new manufacturing technologies have been awarded more than half a million pounds in funding.

The funding, from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), will support two 18-month studies — one to develop ‘holographic optical tweezers’ for state-of-the-art tissue engineering technologies and another to transform the production of chemicals in the manufacture of drugs for the pharmaceutical industry.

The manufacture of chemicals makes a major contribution to the UK’s economy — £10 billion per year in the chemicals sector and £9 billion in the pharmaceuticals sector alone.
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A recent report to government by the Chemistry Growth Strategy Group, which represents the UK chemical and chemistry-using industries, highlighted ‘smart technologies’ as being key to the sector’s ambitions to increase their Gross Value Added contribution to the UK economy by 50% by 2030.

Chemists and engineers at the University have been awarded £300,000 to transform the way in which a technique called continuous photochemistry — which uses light to trigger chemical reactions — can be used in the commercial manufacturing of chemicals. 

Breaking through barriers to cheaper products

The Nottingham team has proven expertise in taking chemical processes from laboratory to commercial plant and will be creating new engineering approaches to the continuous photochemical manufacture of chemicals which could transform chemical processes and significantly reduce costs.

The research will address key technical and scientific barriers frustrating the current use of the technique and promises cheaper products in the pharmaceutical, agrochemical and fine chemicals sectors.

Professor Martyn Poliakoff, in the University’s School of Chemistry, said: “We are delighted with the grant and feel that partnership between me and Mike George in Chemistry with Steve Pickering in Engineering will produce successful methodologies that will contribute to the cleaner, improved manufacture of chemicals.”

Pharmacists and physicists at the University will join forces on another project, funded with £250,000 from the EPSRC, which will use laser light for regenerative medicine applications.

Led by Dr Lee Buttery in the School of Pharmacy, the project will take ‘holographic optical tweezers’, an existing technology previously used in the field of optics and for the study of the fundamental properties of light, and develop it for us in repairing and growing tissues and organs.

Moving living cells with laser light

The research, which also involves academics at Glasgow University, will use the tweezers to trap living cells and a computer will be used to position them with pinpoint accuracy to form complex 3-D structures.

These tissues grown in a laboratory could be used to more accurately test drugs for human use, reducing the need for animal experimentation.

Dr Buttery said: “I still find it amazing that we can move living cells with laser light and then assemble the cells into defined 3D structures with ‘laser-guided’ precision. We are obviously delighted with the support from EPSRC and together with our colleagues from Glasgow we look forward to developing the tweezers as a tool in the manufacture of cell-scale ‘products’ for studies in developmental biology, drug release/discovery and tissue engineering.”

The funding comes as part of a £3.6 million package of funding for manufacturing research for the pharmaceuticals, chemicals, electronics and security industries announced recently by Vince Cable, the Secretary of State for Business, Innovations and Skills.

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Notes to editors: The University of Nottinghamhas 43,000 students and is ‘the nearest Britain has to a truly global university, with campuses in China and Malaysia modelled on a headquarters that is among the most attractive in Britain’ (Times Good University Guide 2014). It is also the most popular university among graduate employers, the world’s greenest university, and winner of the Times Higher Education Award for ‘Outstanding Contribution to Sustainable Development’. It is ranked in the World's Top 75 universities by the QS World University Rankings.

Impact: The Nottingham Campaign, its biggest-ever fundraising campaign, is delivering the University’s vision to change lives, tackle global issues and shape the future. More news…

Story credits

More information is available from Professor Martyn Poliakoff on +44 (0)115 951 3520,; Dr Lee Buttery on +44 (0)115 846 7857,

Emma Thorne Emma Thorne - Media Relations Manager

Email: Phone: +44 (0)115 951 5793 Location: University Park

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