This researcher wants to reshape people’s perception of plastics

This researcher wants to reshape people’s perception of plastics

Polymers might sound dull, but Dr Declan Devine is focusing his research in this space as plastics can be used for everything from carrier bags to medtech devices.

“My research interests are varied, partly due to polymer science and engineering been a key enabling technology in a variety of different industries,” says Dr Declan Devine.

After working his way up to a PhD in polymer engineering at Athlone Institute of Technology, Devine’s research career started with investigating hydrogel systems in the pharma space.

He then moved to Switzerland to take up a position at AO Research Institute Davos, where he specialised in orthopaedic research. It was in this area he was awarded a Marie Curie Fellowship to work with Harvard Medical School and later the Mayo Clinic.

After this fellowship, Devine became head of polymer research at Athlone Institute of Technology, which is now part of Technological University of the Shannon.

With changing technologies, he started conducting research into the sustainability of polymers, additive manufacturing and smart manufacturing of polymer components. He is now director of the university’s Polymer, Recycling, Industrial, Sustainability and Manufacturing (PRISM) Research Institute.

‘All plastics are not bad, but we do need to use better plastics more wisely’

Tell us about the research you’re currently working on.

I remain very interested in biomedical research and specifically the controlled release of active pharmaceutical ingredients to enhance bone healing and the use of 3D printing for the production of a variety of medical devices.

However, we have been working with recycling companies in Ireland for over 15 years looking at ways to utilise and enhance recycled plastics. Since the highlighting of the environmental crisis caused by plastic waste mishandling, this research has come to the fore and we are looking at ways to address this through chemical recycling of plastics as well as the development of biodegradable/compostable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics.

Another important area of research is smart manufacturing of polymer components. This builds on traditional polymer manufacturing where robots interact with polymer processing machines to handle parts as they are produced. Smart manufacturing builds intelligence into this system, where a robot can recognise what parts it needs to move, integrated autonomous supply chains are developed, parts can be tracked from cradle to cradle (circular economy), among many other potential applications.

In your opinion, why is your research important?

We cannot take anything for granted and we must continue to investigate and develop new technologies. When plastics were developed they were designed to last 1,000 years. Now we know this is not a good thing.

When Henry Ford invented the moving assembly line it was revolutionary. Even this has advanced beyond recognition and manufacturing has almost gone full circle where people no longer want mass-produced parts. Without research, none of this is possible.

What inspired you to become a researcher?

I enjoyed the quest for answers. Research changes every day. The more we learn to more questions we have.

As dull as polymers sound, they are fascinating and range from everything from bags to mobile phones to devices that save people’s lives on a daily basis. Studying them has also enabled me to work in countries like Switzerland and the US.

What are some of the biggest challenges or misconceptions you face as a researcher in your field?

Plastics = bad. Plastics should be banned

Environmental pollution is of course bad but plastics are a lot more than a convenient way to carry shopping. They protect food from contamination, prolong shelf life and reduce food waste. Using paper instead of plastic is not sustainable as we are cutting down trees to meet this challenge, which was why plastic carry bags were initially developed in the ’70s.

Outside of packaging, plastics are hugely important to the Irish economy with almost 200 plastic processing companies and over 400 medical device manufacturing companies in Ireland where 80pc of medical devices contain plastic.

All plastics are not bad, but we do need to use better plastics more wisely.

Do you think public engagement with science has changed in recent years?

Since Covid-19, public engagement efforts are coming more to the fore.

Large sums of money are spent on research each year and the benefits of this research are seen all around us. However, we can’t take this for granted and we need to keep showcasing the benefits of this research to the public so we can continue to advance as a society.

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