The impact of COVID-19 will be changing our lives for years to come. And this is not necessarily a bad thing.

For Australia as a nation, the disruption of ‘business as usual’ highlighted the importance of manufacturing self-sufficiency. An insight which has already led to the roll-out of a $1.5 bn. strategy by the Federal Government.

Dr Anastasios Polyzos, Senior Lecturer In Flow Chemistry And Catalysis at the University of Melbourne, refers to a “wake-up call” for the country’s capabilities.

“It really hit the spotlight with Australia, because our manufacturing capacity over the last 20- 25 years, has reduced. So this has caused a rethink of the way that we manufacture, particularly with chemical compounds and pharmaceutical products,” Dr Polyzos tells Neos Kosmos.

His research group has been at the forefront of efforts for developing new manufacturing technology for the last decade or so.

“What we’ve wanted to see is the transformation of Australia’s chemical and pharmaceutical industry to make it much more globally competitive and sustainable.

“And now there’s an interest by government and industry to try and prop it up, because it’s one of the major contributors to the economy.”

Part of the solution, he says, in developing novel manufacturing methods, is offered by flow chemistry.

This strand of chemistry forms the basis of his team’s ongoing research, which has secured funding from the Federal government and the Australian Defence Force, but also attracted interest from industry, including plant chemical manufacturers and pharmaceuticals.

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“What we hope to do is develop a suite of these technologies where we can reinvent the chemical factory and the pharmaceutical manufacturer factory.”

The method behind the factory of the future

Flow chemistry is being explored a key means to this end.

The method is juxtaposed to its conventional counterpart – batch production – and trumpeted as “a smarter way of making chemicals”.

As its name suggests, it facilitates continuous flow chemical processes in manufacturing. With flow reactors operating continuously, Dr Polyzos explains, “it’s almost like an infinite manufacturing process.”

The benefits? increased efficiency in upscaling production, more environmentally friendly, reduced cost, waste and even space needed.

“If you go and see a traditional manufacturing plant, particularly for pharmaceuticals, they’re very large. It can be the size of a football field or even larger than that, sometimes the size of an entire city block.

“With the technology we’re developing, these are much smaller in footprint. So you can imagine, going from the size of a football field to the size of your living. We “shrink” it all the way down, but in doing so, we can still have the same capacity to produce the same volume. And even more, because of the continuous process compared to batch techniques.”

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Australia a key player in next manufacturing revolution?
Meanwhile, prospective national benefits include generation of jobs in the industry and investment in research and development.

Companies adopting flow chemistry technology in manufacturing, are set to have improved performance in their respective markets, and so are nations, according to Dr Polyzos.

Researchers at the University of Melbourne aspire to “reinvent the chemical factory and the pharmaceutical manufacturer factory”. Photo: Supplied

“It allows companies to establish supply not only for Australia, but for the globe.

“And that can put Australia on the map as an advanced chemical manufacturing country.”

Globally, the pharmaceutical sector and parts of the fine chemical manufacturing are testing the waters of the revolutionary technology.

“If you look at what’s happening around the world, certainly in North America, and in Europe, particularly in Germany, Switzerland, the large pharmaceutical companies have been transitioning from batch to flow for a number of reasons, not only to to meet the new environmental standards imposed by governments, but also to enhance their competitiveness,” says Dr Polyzos.

“So we are really witnessing a revolution on how chemicals are being made at the global scale now, with flow chemistry, and Australia is playing its part in that as well.”

Placing science on the right side of environmental history

An organic chemist by training, Dr Polyzos credits his father’s collection of Greek encyclopedias, for developing a fascination with science since a kid, along with a flair for curiosity.

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“I remember being just completely amazed by what was inspired by science and how it allowed us to describe nature.”

“It all boils down to having an absolute curiosity about how the world works. And that curiosity allows you then to use tools to interrogate nature and try and understand it and chemistry is one of those tools to me.”

Better understanding nature, he says, leads to a better position for problem-solving.

Want a tangible example? How about putting CO2 emissions into good use?

The research group led by Dr Polyzos is working on developing new sustainable methods for chemical manufacturing, including using fossil fuel products as starting materials.

“We’re interested in taking one of the most abundant sources of carbon on earth, carbon dioxide, and converting that to a building block for chemical manufacture.”

“There are many technologies doing what we call carbon capture,” Dr Polyzos explains noting there’s also “a lot of debate in science and in governments in terms of what we’ll do with that captured carbon dioxide.”

In his team, they’re looking into using catalysts that mimic the photosynthesis process in plants to convert CO2 into base materials for pharmaceutical products.

But potential for more applications exists, provided that the “right catalyst, the right chemical process to affect that transformation” is developed.

“Think about things like fuel[…] polymers, making new biofuels for aircraft and jets, for the automotive industry…”

While zero emissions is the mantra increasingly adopted by energy companies and beyond, Dr Polyzos describes the direction science is moving to nowadays as “thinking how can we do something really useful with that carbon dioxide and convert it into other fuels or more advanced products?”

So even if the ‘zero emissions’ target remains in the aspirational realm, chemistry advances could actually hit the ‘zero waste’ one.

“Once they’ re used they generate carbon dioxide again, though the combustion of these products, and we can actually catch it again. So we develop what’s known as a circular cycle, a circular economy with carbon dioxide, but with net zero waste.”

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