Driving innovation through industry collaboration: NSSN

This article was first published in the September 2021 issue of Australian Printer, authored by NSSN industrial futures theme leader Dr Don McCallum and PEGRAS Asia Pacific director and technology consultant Ian Byrne, as interviewed by NSSN media officer Shahrzad Abbasi

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the NSW Smart Sensing Network (NSSN). Established in 2016 with financial backing from the NSW Government, NSSN was created to build on the state’s existing research and industry strengths and drive innovation through industry collaboration. 

The network works with industry and government partners to gain an in-depth understanding of their challenges, then draws upon the strengths of the leading research universities in NSW to develop tailored solutions. 

NSSN’s $1.5 million Increased Recycling of Plastics by Sensing and Treating Label Contamination program has convened scientists and major Australian businesses to boost Australia’s recycling capability. The partnership received $650,000 in federal funding through a Cooperative Research Centre Project (CRC-P) grant.

NSSN industrial futures lead Dr Don McCallum said the project strongly supports Australia’s transition to a circular economy. 

“There’s a lot more that can be done across the whole print and recycling sector. We want to get to that full circle economy, for the environmental reasons and because it makes economic sense,” he said.

High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a high-quality plastic commonly used in packaging consumer goods. Rigid HDPE currently has a 25 per cent post-consumer recovery rate and contains about one per cent recycled content. One significant barrier to recycling HDPE is removing the glue fixing the labels on the containers. 

Brought together by NSSN and led by PEGRAS Asia Pacific, researchers from the University of Sydney, UNSW and the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) are working with Labelmakers and a number of dairy companies to utilise sensing to remove the label contaminants on HDPE milk bottles.

The project has led to the development of world-first technologies that cut costs, increase production efficiency, and have the potential to triple Australia’s present HDPE recycling rate.

“The basic methodology of the project was to sense, treat, do the industrial scale-up, and understand the wider circular economy,” Dr McCallum said. 

“Researchers at the University of Sydney have developed new sensing and data analytics techniques to measure the residual adhesives on the factory samples. They’ve created a novel wash chemistry that fully removes the adhesive from the HDPE bottle.” 

UNSW has a long history of being a powerhouse in understanding industrial processes and scaling up laboratory research to industry. After running simulations on a supercomputer, the researchers have developed an actual pilot size wash reactor that will be used to physically test and optimise plastic packaging plus label construction designs for circularity.

“The reactor is based around a supercomputer that models the geometry, the material flows, thermodynamics and large amounts of data to maximise efficiency. Building the test rig has been an incredible achievement for the industry,” Dr McCallum said. 

UTS researchers have conducted a first-time study to view the material flow analysis of milk bottles in isolation. The researchers have mapped a milk bottle’s journey from curbside pickup to the post-recycling market.

“The study has shown that creating a circular economy for plastics requires a whole of system approach,” Dr McCallum said. 

Director and Technology Consultant at PEGRAS Asia Pacific Mr Ian Byrne said companies benefit from expanding their research and development investments.

“The current value of the project is $1.5 million, but the opportunity for industry savings is in the 10’s of millions with improved processes and expanded processing,” he said.

“The engagement with the NSSN has been a unique experience for PEGRAS and has opened up a whole new world of technology horizons. Together with our industry and research partners, we have provided a solution to an intractable problem that has plagued the recycling industry globally for the past 20 years.”

The NSSN takes the time to understand the industry’s distinct smart sensing needs, connects businesses with research teams, and facilitates contract administration, project costing, and commercialisation negotiations between all parties. The network also works with project teams to unlock state and federal grants that support industry-university collaboration.

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