Women in chemistry: Reducing the UK’s 2.5 billion binned coffee cups

Each year in Britain 2.5 billion coffee cups are used and thrown away, enough to stretch around the world roughly five and a half times. One female entrepreneur has created a coffee cup coating that negates the need for plastic.

Women in Innovation winner Fanya Ismail, founder of Sol-gel Coatings - image courtesy of Innovate UK
Women in Innovation winner Fanya Ismail, founder of Sol-gel Coatings – image courtesy of Innovate UK.

Plastic is one of the most well-documented challenges of our time, particularly single-use plastics like coffee cups.

Almost half of all coffees and hot drinks are now sold in disposable cups. There are more than four times as many coffee shops today as there were in 2000, and one in five of us visit a coffee shop every day.

Dr Fanya Ismail, founder and CEO of chemical business SGMA, Sol-Gel Coatings and Advanced Materials, has created a coating for food and drink packaging that removes the need for plastic. Ismail is now working with some of the largest coffee cup manufacturers in the world to implement this.

She was one of nine women to win funding from Innovate UK as part of its ‘Women in Innovation’ campaign. If more women took part in entrepreneurial activity then over £180bn could be delivered to Britain’s economy, not only this but some of the world’s biggest issues could be potentially resolved.

The campaign began in 2016 when Innovate UK revealed that just one in seven applications for funding came from women. Ismail said to The Manufacturer, “The manufacturing and chemical industries are male-dominated, when you go to any event, if you just look around you can count the number of women.” She says, “Many entrepreneurs give up especially females because they don’t feel confident, for me my confidence came because of my expertise.”

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A breakthrough for material science

Ismail is an expert in the chemical process known as ‘sol-gel’. In material science, the process is a method that produces solid materials from small molecules.

Ismail has created coffee cups with smart coatings using the sol-gel process - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
Ismail has created coffee cups with smart coatings using the sol-gel process – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

“I worked for a number of years as a research scientist and then as a lecturer. As I understood more about the chemistry in particular the design of the molecules, I began to experiment with the technique and the results were really outstanding.

“I was looking at adapting the technology to solve the challenges we face as a global society, for example the single use plastic problem.”

Ismail has created environmentally friendly coffee cups with smart coatings using the sol-gel process.

“We are using the chemical process to make disposable coffee cups waterproof without the need to use plastic,” she says.

“The sol-gel technology is well-known in both industry and academia, what makes our technology different is that we introduce materials at a molecular model which makes the end product unique, it has never been done before.”

Ismail says that the journey has not been easy and that rigorous independent testing for toxicity and recyclability was crucial to proving the accountability of the coating.

“At the moment we are looking to scale up, we have a number of customers who we are engaged with to do pilot testing. We are working with a few of the largest cup manufacturers in the world.”

Cross-sector applications

The sol-gel process is a method that produces solid materials from small molecules - image courtesy of Depositphotos.
The sol-gel process is a method that produces solid materials from small molecules – image courtesy of Depositphotos.

Ismail sees many applications for the process in food and drink packaging, but also the potential for a broader range of uses. She says that the team are looking at licensing the process to manufacturers across the globe.

“We have also developed a non-toxic antimicrobial coating, at the moment every other antimicrobial coating has traces of toxic materials and we have achieved a coating without that. The concept has also been proved independently.”

Ismail explains that sustainability has been “the major driver”. She says that the unique and core benefit of the sol-gel process is that you can modify it easily and continuously improve processes without large capital investment.

“The priority right now is for food and drink packaging, particularly coffee cups, but the ultimate plan is to make us the experts when it comes to sol-gel technology and its applications.”