A TEAM of North-East academics and industry experts have "cracked the DNA code of plastic" which could mean massive cost and energy savings for business. Researchers at Durham University and the University of Leeds have collaborated with the Tees Valley chemical process sector to solve a long-standing problem that is set to revolutionise the way new plastics are developed.

Before the discovery, industry would develop a plastic and then find a use for it, or try hundreds of different recipes until they stumbled across the right mix. This trial and error method wasted time, energy and money.

The breakthrough, which drew on the expertise of North-East based firms such as Lucite International, Dow Chemical and BASF, has produced a high-tech recipe book that will allow a company to create the plastic it wants. It will also increase the opportunity for plastics to be recycled.

Professor Tom McLeish, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at Durham University, who was part of the project, explained in layman's terms how the discovery would be a major boon to companies across the globe.

"In the past, when industry has been developing a plastic, it was akin to trying to find buried treasure in a vast, uncharted country," he said. "What we have developed gives industry a map to help them find that treasure. It will improve efficiency in terms of cost and the energy they use."

Dr Ian Robinson of Lucite International outlined how beneficial the breakthrough could be when he said: "The insights offered by this approach are comparable to cracking a plastics DNA."

The research paper detailing the breakthrough is being published in the journal Science. The paper's authors form part of the Microscale Polymer Processing project, a collaboration between academics and industry exploring how to better build giant macromolecules - the basic components of plastics which dictate their properties during production.

The polymer project also involved LyondellBasell, DSM, and Mitsubishi and the research programme was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the European Union.

Prof McLeish reckoned that the groundbreaking discovery could only have been achieved by academia and industry joining forces.

He added: "For the North-East to have been involved in this project is a real coup. It is a wonderful outcome of a piece of work that was started back in 1999 with the support of ICI. Teesside companies have been key partners ever since.

"Here in the UK we are particularly good at collaborative work, whereas our main competitors in this field, the Americans, have brilliant individuals, but are not so good at pooling skills and expertise. What we have achieved could not have been done by one person. It needed everyone: physicists, chemists, mathematicians, computer scientists and industry to work together.

"The direct involvement of industry has been key. They bring practical experience and can test it at every stage to make sure it works in a real life industrial environment."

Dr Daniel Read, from the School of Mathematics, University of Leeds, concluded: "Plastics are used by everybody, every day, but until now their production has been effectively guesswork. This breakthrough means that new plastics can be created more efficiently and with a specific use in mind, with benefits to industry and the environment."