Researchers work on more sustainable nappies

Bei einer Laborführung an der FAU verschafften sich Vertreter des Konsumgüterkonzerns Procter & Gamble, unter anderem Dr. Holger Beruda (2.v.l.), Associate Director Baby Care Research and Development, und Dr. Lee Ellen Drechsler (3.v.l.), Director, Corporate Research & Development, einen Überblick über die wissenschaftliche Kompetenz ihres akademischen Kooperationspartners – hier an einer Versuchsanlage zur Optimierung von Katalysatoren. (Bild: FAU)

Collaboration between FAU and Procter & Gamble aims to further improve the environmental impact of disposable nappies

Disposable nappies are easy to use, practical when on the move, and particularly good at keeping the skin dry. FAU researchers are now working with the multinational consumer goods company Procter & Gamble (P&G) to improve the material properties of disposable nappies. The aim is to make them considerably more environmentally friendly. Carbohydrate sources from agricultural by-products could be used as the basis of the extremely absorbent granules inside babies’ nappies and similar hygiene products.

Nowadays the cores of disposable nappies are made of polyacrylic acid, a superabsorbent polymer. The granules can absorb many times their own weight in liquid and – unlike a sponge – trap it permanently inside a kind of gel. Each year, globally more than five million tons of acrylic acid are produced from oil, and around 30 percent is used for hygiene products such as nappies. Lactic acid, which is made by fermenting carbohydrates, is an alternative raw material that can be used to make acrylic acid. Over the next two years, a team of researchers led by Prof. Dr. Peter Wasserscheid, Institute of Chemical Reaction Engineering, along with researchers and engineers at P&G’s research departments in Germany and the USA aim to optimise the method of producing acrylic acid from lactic acid as an alternative to using oil. More specifically, they will investigate which catalysts are most suitable for producing acrylic acid from lactic acid, how the reaction conditions can be optimised, and how the entire process can later be implemented on an industrial scale.

FAU and P&G have already been collaborating successfully for almost three years, working on improving the material properties of everyday products. For example, their researchers are using molecular models to gain a detailed understanding of hair structures in order to help develop high-quality hair-care products, and investigating the flow fields around rotating toothbrush heads more closely. Nappies are another area being researched. Simulations by a working group led by Prof. Dr. Michael Stingl, Professor of Mathematical Optimisation, and Prof. Dr. Marc Avila, Professor of Simulation of Nano and Micro Flows, have made a significant contribution to making nappies much more absorbent by determining the optimal arrangement for the superabsorbent materials. This research project and the new project are great examples of P&G’s sustainability strategy, which covers the careful use of resources, the use of renewable raw materials, and the use of waste products as raw materials.

FAU is one of P&G’s largest academic research partners in Germany and has received around 1.6 million euros in funding to date as part of the strategic collaboration. Both parties benefit from working together, as the company can drive its process of innovation forward with ideas from external partners, while the researchers have an opportunity to work on problems with direct practical relevance. The partnership is very successful thanks to the technology transfer programme run by FAU’s Cluster of Excellence ‘Engineering of Advanced Materials’ (EAM) and the interdisciplinary network of experts that it has at its disposal.

Furthermore, P&G is committed to supporting young researchers, which led it to establish the P&G SimCenter at FAU’s Centre for Scientific Computing (ZiSC) in May 2014. In addition to centres in Cincinnati and Singapore, it is only the third simulation centre of its kind in the world. At the centre up to ten Master’s students at a time work on modelling and simulation for current P&G projects. The aim is to use creative ideas to find new solutions for problems in image and motion analysis, manufacturing processes, and the optimisation of mechanical processes. ‘For P&G Germany, P&G’s second largest research location after the USA, it is especially important to get in contact with talented young researchers and to support them,’ says Dr. Katharina Marquardt, head of scientific communication at Procter & Gamble Germany, ‘The SimCenter is a fantastic example of this.’ After the first highly successful year, both parties are keen to extend the project.

Further information:

Prof. Dr. Peter Wasserscheid
Institute of Chemical Reaction Engineering
Phone: +49 9131 8527420

Prof. Dr. Tim Clark
Computer Chemistry Centre
Phone: +49 9131 8522948

Procter & Gamble
Dr. Katharina Marquardt
Scientific communication
P&G – Germany, Austria, Switzerland
Phone: +49 6196 895430

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