Background

Unilever are a global company selling fast-moving consumer goods, placing innovation at the heart of its ambition to grow sustainably.

Having previously worked with Sensor City to run a packaging challenge with local SMEs, Unilever reached out to Sensor City again with a new sensor project, this time requiring academic expertise and research input.

Academics spend a lot of time trying to find end users, so having an organisation like Sensor City do the work for us is brilliant. They already have a database of corporate contacts who are wanting to collaborate with universities and so their ability to facilitate these company introductions has proved very worthwhile.
'Additionally, enabling our students to work on real life projects is very valuable as they get a better understanding of how their course knowledge can be applied within industry. They are also provided with a chance to be linked directly with manufacturers who are using their sensor devices in practice.”

Dr. Kate Black, Senior Lecturer in Additive Manufacture, University of Liverpool

Approaching Sensor City

Unilever required assistance from Sensor City to find the best academic experts in the relevant fields and to facilitate a collaborative venture.

Highly aware of the research specialisms within our university partners, we initially contacted Dr Kate Black at the University of Liverpool’s Centre for Materials and Structures. This subsequently led to additional involvement from the Chemistry department at the University of Liverpool, in part due to Prof Peter Myers having started his industrial career at The Unilever Research & Development Port Sunlight Laboratory.

A kick-start meeting was then arranged on behalf of all parties to discuss the project in more detail and to understand how the research and development collaboration would work.

Partner Support

Making initial introductions between these industry and academic leads and providing access for them both to our wide-reaching network, adds value to their activities and allows them to focus on the job at hand. Once the project team was established, the technical research and experimentation could begin.

The overarching aim of the project was to find out if it was possible to use inkjet printing techniques to print sensors. These sensors would then be used to detect volatiles emitted from surfaces.  Unilever uses conventional systems such as GCMS to detect volatiles from surfaces but required a faster capability. Hence, this research project with University of Liverpool was required to investigate three specific things; can simple volatile materials be detected from surfaces in real-time; ability to print the sensor material directly onto glass, or plastic to check the functionalised detection of inks; and production of a sensing electronic chip to look at conductivity when a volatile is detected in the environment.

Working into the future

Upon completion of the primary project, the R&D work will be continued by University of Liverpool Chemistry students to explore how the sensors can be fully optimised to become reusable and to undertake analysis on the environmental results.

It is also hoped that a larger extension to this piece of work will be undertaken via an EPSRC grant and carried out by PhD students.

Results

The Sensor City facilitated collaboration led to an in-depth research and development project, which was undertaken in the labs at University of Liverpool. Experimenting over a six-month period, the project team discovered that the sensors did detect volatiles and concluded that inkjet printing was suitable for mass manufacturing of sensors as it can be easily modified.

The project team reported some promising results from this proof of concept grant and benefited from reduced set-up times thanks to Sensor City’s involvement in bringing the researchers together with the corporate client.

Sign up to our Newsletter