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The Biocatalysis and Analytical Chemistry research groups of the Van’ t Hoff Institute for Molecular Sciences have been granted € 265.000 by TKI Chemie / Holland Chemistry for joint research into the enzymatic depolymerisation of synthetic polymers. They will collaborate with industrial partners DSM Coating Resins and InnoSyn. The project was granted under the ‘PPS programmatoeslag’ and will run for 2 years. Project PIs are associate professor Francesco Mutti of Biocatalysis and assistant professor Andrea Gargano of Analytical Chemistry.

Accumulation of plastic materials in the environment and their efficient recycling constitute essential challenges of contemporary society. During the past decade, academia and industry have invested significant efforts in the development of new plastic materials that are inherently degradable in the environment. However, the replacement of traditional plastic materials with these new generation biodegradable alternatives is not always possible. In fact, there are technical applications for which conventional polymers still offer superior performance and often their application is mandatory.

Surprisingly, however, the properties of performance vs. degradability of these traditional polymers have not been fully elucidated even though their degradability is - just like their functionality - linked to their particular physicochemical and structural properties. In the project Enzymatic Depolymerisation of Synthetic Polymers’ (EnDeP) new biocatalysts (i.e., enzymes) will be developed for the selective (i.e., ‘chemically controlled’) degradation of polymeric materials. It will also provide advanced analytical techniques for the determination of the key factors that influence the polymer degradability.

Thus, this research will contribute to generating the required knowledge to understand the process of depolymerisation of synthetic polymers. It will provide a toolbox of biocatalysts to be used for efficient plastic recycling and bioremediation, and as a tool in the analytical chemistry of polymers.