05 October 2022: The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science is today delighted to announce the winner of the Plastics Challenge as part of the SFI Future Innovator Prize Programme and award €2.4 m funding to the Grain-4-Lab team.

The project, undertaken by Dr Jennifer Gaughran, Dr Brian Freeland, Ms Samantha Fahy, Dr Susan Kelleher and Dr Keith Rochfort from Dublin City University, was selected as the front runner of the Challenge and is developing a solution to tackle sustainability challenges in plastic usage in Irish research laboratories by using waste produced from the brewing and distilling industry in Ireland. The research team has been working in partnership with organisations such as Waterford Distillery, Murphy & Son, Smallwares and Key Plastics to develop, test and trial the solution.

Speaking about the award, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris said: “I am delighted to announce Grain-4-Lab as the winner of this year’s Plastic Challenge as part of the SFI Future Innovator Prize. I want to congratulate the team - Dr. Jennifer Gaughran, Dr. Brian Freeland, Ms Samantha Fahy, Dr. Susan Kelleher and Dr. Keith Rochfort from Dublin City University - for their leadership. The project is aimed at developing a solution to tackle plastic usage in Irish research laboratories by using waste produced from the brewing and distilling industry in Ireland. The Grain-4-Lab team will work towards reducing plastic waste with our labs and our colleges. This is the leadership we need to help us meet our climate targets – innovative solutions and dynamic leadership.”

Commenting on the award Dr Jennifer Gaughran, said “The whole Grain-4-Lab team are so grateful to be receiving this prize. As a society, we are producing too much plastic from non-renewable sources, and at the same time sending plastic waste to incineration or landfill at a rate that is environmentally and economically unsustainable. At Grain-4-Lab, we have the solution to tackle this problem. This funding will allow us to make great strides in sustainability by creating new, compostable plastics from waste that will help to combat this growing challenge facing our planet.”

Grain-4-Lab identified two sustainability challenges as central to their research project. Firstly, they identified the underutilisation of native waste streams from breweries and distilleries in Ireland as a missed opportunity, particularly in the context of a growing number of breweries across Ireland and therefore an increasing amount of waste materials produced. Secondly, the team acknowledged the use and disposal of fossil-fuel based plastics, particularly large quantities of single-use plastics from Irish labs to incineration and landfills as a persisting sustainability issue that had yet to be tackled. 

The research team proposed a solution that addresses these growing challenges in parallel by transforming these waste streams into poly-lactic acid (PLA), which can be used to manufacture compostable bioplastics.

During the prize phase of the award, the Grain-4-Lab team will focus on the scale-up of their process for the manufacture of lab components, starting with petri dishes and extending this to other consumables, while developing a framework for the adoption of sustainable practices in laboratories. The team will also continue to validate their approach, engaging with stakeholders across the value chain and developing commercialisation plans for their technology.

Dr Ruth Freeman, Director of Science for Society, Science Foundation Ireland added her congratulations: “I would like to commend Grain-4-Lab, Microplastics-free Plastics and the other teams that competed in the SFI Plastics Challenge, for their innovative, cutting-edge ideas which make significant strides in addressing future societal challenges and sustainability goals. Single-use plastic is a major contributor to global pollution, and it is essential that we try to reduce our consumption in all aspects of society. Similarly, waste material produced in Irish breweries and distilleries is an emerging and growing problem with a considerable impact on the environment. Grain-4-lab has proposed an inventive solution to two sustainability challenges, which will allow STEM researchers in Ireland to lead by example by reducing single-use plastics in laboratories while tackling evolving sustainability challenges”.

A runner-up prize of €250,000 has also been awarded to the Microplastics-free Plastics team, led by Prof John Boland from Trinity College, Dublin.