Three innovative British companies at various stages of international fame
There are many different types of plastic, and not all of them are created equal. The varieties currently in the news, causing huge problems in ecosystems worldwide – polyethylene, polypropylene and PET – are at the bottom of the pile in terms of quality.
Further up the rungs of the ladder are engineering and high-performance plastics, which are manufactured on a much more limited scale than common plastics, have highly advantageous performance properties and, consequently, can cost as much as £300 per kilo.
Polyether-ether-ketone (or PEEK), a colourless thermoplastic polymer, is at the very top of the plastics pyramid. The name might not sound familiar, but it’s everywhere, from household devices such as earphones and refrigerator compressors, to airplanes, which can contain as much as a tonne of it.
Two models of the successful commercialisation of proprietary technology
PEEK was invented by Victrex, a British company which held the patent till the 2000s, and which was spun out of Imperial Chemical Industries – or ICI – itself the product of a merger of four leading British chemical companies in 1926.
Originally Victrex was solely a supplier of basic PEEK resins, but as its patent expired it moved into the manufacturing of compound PEEK materials. Victrex’s PEEK film, which is used as a backing material for micro-speakers, can withstand stresses several times higher than standard speaker diaphragms.
More than 200 million drivers rely on Victrex’s PEEK products, in the form of the anti-lock braking and electronic stability control systems of their cars. Certain gears are also made of it, thanks to the polymer’s outstanding resistance to wear.
Not only has PEEK played a seminal role in replacing metal in the automotive, aerospace and energy sectors but, being biocompatible and biologically inert, it has also become a viable alternative to titanium and steel medical implants.
In 1999, Victrex launched PEEK-Optima Natural as the world’s first implantable PEEK polymer, founding a new subdivision, Invibio, to produce and distribute the new material. The polymer and its reinforced compounds can be found in more than nine million spine, knee, trauma and dental implants around the world.
Invibio recently reached an exclusive agreement to supply its PEEK-Optima ultra- reinforced carbon fibre technology to In2Bones USA, a leading global manufacturer of arm and leg implants. With a subsidiary in Hong Kong, an innovation centre in Shanghai and a recent announcement to form a joint venture with Yingkou Xingfu Chemical Company, Invibio has been building a strong presence on the Asian market too.
Vitrex’s 18 years of corporate history demonstrates how innovative technologies wedded with business acumen can translate patents into enterprises, profit and eventually a leading position on the global market. Meanwhile, the example of Mura Technology, a Teesside-based plastic-neutral recycler, shows how far impact investment can go in transferring and upscaling a world-class patent.
One of the key partners in this success story of international co-operation is Armstrong Capital, a London-based investment firm managing green energy assets for high-net-worth individuals and family offices. Its chairman, Steve Mahon, is an investment professional with a strong track record in renewable energy and waste and a background in geophysics.
But it all started with Licella, the Australian developer of the catalytic hydrothermal reactor (Cat-HTR), a hydrothermal upgrading platform that can turn biomass or non-recyclable plastic into biofuels and chemicals.
Hydrothermal upgrading, a type of advanced recycling alongside with pyrolysis – another highly promising nascent technology – uses supercritical (high temperature and pressure) water to break down polymer chains and convert plastics, including non-recyclable ones, into what they were originally made of.
Mura, the successor of a joint venture between Licella’s and Armstrong Capital Management’s subsidiaries, was issued the royalty-free exclusive global licence for Licella’s existing and future patents outside Australia and New Zealand in 2019, with Steve Mahon as CEO.
The first company to take out Mura’s license and build the world’s first Cat-HTR has been its subsidiary, ReNew ELP. The plant is scheduled to start operation in 2022 and reach one million tonnes recycling capacity by 2025. There is also a plan to follow the launch of the first Teesside plant with quick rollouts of the technology in the US, Germany and Asia.
Mura’s advanced recycling technology, which enables a wide range of plastics – including multilayer and flexible varieties – to be recycled indefinitely, is supported by several environmentalists, such as marine biologist Sylvia Earle and Jo Ruxton, co-founder of Plastic Ocean Foundation. Before the pandemic hit, the Cat-HTR technology also earned kudos from the United Nations’ General Assembly, as an innovative technology that can help solve the world’s plastic pollution and contribute to a plastic circular economy.
In 2020 we saw how Covid-19 slowed down efforts to turn the tide on plastic pollution, and even put additional burden on the environment by making single-use the norm. Tens of thousands of masks, just to bring one example, were discarded by Royal Cornwall Hospital hospital in a single day. But Welsh brand Sterimelt has stepped up to the plate to address one important aspect of the single-use plastics crisis that the pandemic has exacerbated.
The Sterimelt unit of recycling machinery manufacturer Thermal Compaction Group (TCG) enables users to melt their single-use polypropylene plastics waste into a commodity on-site. As the process removes any contamination from the waste, the resulting blocks can be sold to plastics manufacturers and turned into kidney bowls, 3D filament, plaster cast replacements and many other things, thus creating additional revenue streams.
The Sterimelt device was originally designed to recycle surgical tray wraps and drapes in hospitals but has since been adapted to melting surgical masks, as well as other PPI. Sterimelt’s signature rectangular plastic blocks then can be converted into pellets and used as feedstock. Mask recycling using Sterimelt machines was piloted in three areas at the Royal Cornwall Hospitals in December 2020, and in March 2021 it was announced that TCG had entered into a joint venture with Dutch sustainability specialist Greencycl, with a view to showcasing Sterimelt technology to hospital decision-makers across the Netherlands and Europe.
Although all three players operate on a different scale and have adopted different models of commercialising innovative technologies within the plastic value chain, they all demonstrate how the association with plastic can earn a business commercial success, a reputation as an ecologically responsible innovator, and entry to markets outside the UK.