Article - Issue 49, December 2011
Knowledge transfer success
This year’s Knowledge Transfer Partnerships Award was presented to Cherry Pipes Ltd by Business Secretary Dr Vince Cable in October 2011. The award recognised the success of the Northern Ireland plastic piping company and highlighted what can be achieved by linking businesses and academic institutions and enabling knowledge transfer in the UK.
With government input, the total grant committed to the Knowledge Transfer Partnerships (KTP) budget has been more than £40 million a year. In the last financial year, this enabled the KTP to set up over 1,300 projects, making it Europe’s leading programme creating business and academic collaboration to improve competitiveness, productivity and performance. The programme is UK-wide and is headed by the Technology Strategy Board (TSB) and supported by 20 other public sector funding organisations.
A KTP involves the formation of a partnership between a business and an academic institution to stimulate the transfer of knowledge and embed new capability within the business organisation. Northern Ireland’s Cherry Plastics Group and research partner, the Polymer Processing Research Centre at Queen’s University, Belfast, were given their award for work developing innovative techniques to sort and recycle plastics.
Over four years, as a direct result of the collaboration, the Cherry Plastics Group workforce has risen from 20 to over 60. Turnover has risen from £2.5 million to £9 million during the project, and spending on R&D has increased significantly.
The company now leads an EU project which could fundamentally change the technology associated with plastics reprocessing and has set up an in-house design facility to focus on ongoing research and development.
Schematic showing plastic waste on the Cherry Pipes conveyor belt heading towards a near-infrared camera. A beam of infrared energy bounces off the different types of plastic and the reflected spectrum is compared to known spectra for different types of plastics. This triggers an air jet that separates desired plastic types from the rest
CONVERTING TO PLASTIC
Cherry Pipes manufactured concrete drainage pipes for around 35 years before branching out into the manufacture of plastic drainage pipes in 2005. When it started to use recycled materials to make plastic pipes in 2006, the company soon realised that it needed to improve the efficiency and the quality of its production processes. Before recycling plastics, the ‘raw materials’ – in this case old bottles and containers– must first be sorted and classified by type of plastic and by colour. Before the recycled materials could be commercially and industrially viable, the company needed to ensure efficient, rapid sorting that achieved consistent composition and purity in the polymers produced.
Gerry McNally, from the Polymer Processing Research Centre at Queen’s University Belfast (QUB), was keen to work with the company to address these sorting challenges. The research team from Queen’s suggested that they apply for KTP funding from the TSB.
KTP projects need to be innovative, challenging and deliver clear business impact. Collaboration sits at the centre of each knowledge transfer project, and critical to that is the relationship between the company and the academic partner.
Cherry Plastics and the team from QUB developed and refined a state-of-the-art near-infrared spectroscopy system to sort mixed plastics into different types of polymers. The unsorted materials to be recycled go onto a conveyor belt, where an array of sensors detects the material type, and sends messages to a nozzle bar which diverts the material into different areas in the plant.
Once plastics are sorted by plastic type, a similar system using visible spectrum spectroscopy rather than near-infrared spectroscopy sorts the polymers by colour. Plastics that have been pigmented are recycled for industrial use, and are mixed together and coloured black. Plastics which have not been pigmented can be coloured later, matched to customer requirements.
After they have been sorted by material and colour, machines chop the various plastics into flakes which are then washed clean. The plastic flakes are immersed in water and subjected to high-shear mixing to ensure a very low level of contamination before a pelletising machine converts the cleaned flakes into pellets. At this stage, volatile materials are removed by subjecting the melt to a vacuum. The melt is also filtered through a very fine mesh to remove almost all non-melting materials .
Cherry Plastics produces very pure high density polyethylene, polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate. The company also makes a range of products from the recycled materials, in particular, drainage pipes both for civil engineering and agricultural applications. The work of the KTP produced improvements in the quality of these plastics that led to British Board of Agrément (BBA) and BSI material standards certification. At the same time, waste in the manufacturing process fell from 10% to 5%.
Until 2008 the reprocessed materials used in the manufacturing of Cherry Drainage Pipes products were sourced from a variety of suppliers throughout Europe. As the company grew and researched its own way of sorting waste, it was able to process its own raw material. Cherry Polymers was established with the acquisition of Ireland’s largest near-infrared plastic bottle sorting plant
One of the main outcomes for Cherry Plastics has been an increased knowledge of recycled polymers. The KTP’s input helped the company grow from a small firm producing precast pipes into a market leader in plastic pipe manufacture and plastic recycling. As a result, the company can now tackle complex troubleshooting operations quickly and successfully. Other companies in the sector now ask Cherry Plastics to troubleshoot their processes.
The business/academic partnership has produced a detailed database of plastics that can be blended together. Cherry Plastics has also been responsible for coordinating a large European project funded by the Framework 7 Programme to develop a new method of processing recycled polymers in a controlled, repeatable way. Queen’s University Belfast have provided the research and technology for this project, with additional research and project management expertise from Pera Technology.