Polymer engineering and manufacturing pioneer wins prestigious Academy Award

Professor Edirisinghe, who is also a Fellow of the European Academy of Sciences, is recognised for his contribution to the industrial application of polymeric fibres by inventing novel fibre manufacturing vessels and processes. He has pioneered a process called pressurised gyration, which can simultaneously combine flow rate, applied pressure and rotation speed and is applicable to all types of polymers worldwide.

This low-cost, minimal-maintenance technology can be mass-produced and manufactured at a global scale for specific applications in many engineering domains, enabling macromolecular core-sheath smart fibre to be made in a more sustainable way without the high-voltage electric fields used in electrospinning. These core-sheath fibres are particularly useful in healthcare, where the core provides mechanical integrity while the sheath contains active ingredients.

This technology can be used to control the spread of infections and support the battle against antimicrobial resistance. The onset of the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the development of face masks and Professor Edirisinghe responded to the Royal Academy of Engineering’s Covid call 2020 by testing proposals to underpin the design and development of a new respirator mask that could protect users across the world. The report and journal papers from this work on antiviral face masks was sent to the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies and the World Health Organisation. This work has advanced into mass-producing multi-layered fibres in work supported by the Government of Kuwait.

Professor Edirisinghe and his team based in UCL Mechanical Engineering have also worked with microbiologists, hospitals and industry to develop a new generation of hospital water and air filters with wider application in schools, care homes and on public transport.

Following on from UKRI funding granted to establish pressurised gyration in pharmaceutical engineering, a new R&D programme focusing on the manufacture of a new generation of wound care bandages and drug delivery patches has started and work is underway with mechanical engineering robotic experts at UCL to develop an automated production process to scale up. Ongoing work addresses quality control issues in real time manufacturing and enhancing anti-viral resistance.

Professor Edirisinghe says: “I am honoured to receive this prestigious award from the Academy, which is the culmination of 10 years developing the process of pressurised gyration and scalable manufacturing vessels with my colleagues at UCL and collaborating with the international research community mainly in Kuwait, Turkey, USA, and China.

“At UCL Mechanical Engineering there are at least 20 PhD students and postdoctoral researchers, who have given me excellent support and six more are currently working on pressurised gyration producing new ideas. Our aim is to serve the worldwide community so that everyone can use our papers, 17 of which have won front-cover status in leading international journals.

“The pandemic reinforced how vital it is to be able to deliver the right healthcare technology as cheaply as possible. What is most important is collaborating with the clinicians to ensure that patients and the public benefit, particularly in developing countries.”

Supporting his nomination, Professor Serena Best CBE FREng, Professor of Material Science at the University of Cambridge and Co-Director of the Cambridge Centre for Medical Materials, says: “Professor Edirisinghe’s work on mass production and manufacturing of smart fibres over the last decade, and especially in the last four years, has had significant impact on the healthcare industry. The breadth of target applications and strength of the underpinning research brings this crucially important facet of engineering and technology development to a completely new level.

“Beyond this, the filters being developed will be capable of oxidising materials like tar and pollution particulates and could help to improve air quality in a range of indoor environments. The availability of these core-sheath fibres in industrially relevant quantities therefore offers a significant boost to protecting our environment.”