Using Mexico’s coastal seaweed infestation to create alternative fuels, pharmaceuticals and food
Dr Emily Kostas (UCL Biochemical Engineering) used Global Engagement Funds to collaborate with peers in Mexico to discuss biorefining seaweed to create alternative and sustainable bioproducts.
24 May 2022
Seaweed has a significant amount of carbon locked within its structure. With the global focus moving away from fossil fuels and petro-chemically derived fuels and chemicals, researchers are showing that there is an exciting possibility of using biorefined seaweed as a carbon source to create fuel and novel products. As such, there is growing interest in developing sustainable processes and technologies to biorefine seaweed.
At the same time that seaweed is being explored as a possible feedstock, Mexico is experiencing a huge amount of seaweed being washed up on its beaches. A result of climate change, the seaweed is a problem for Mexico. It is harming tourism, disrupts the ability of turtles to lay their eggs, and it is expensive for the Mexican government to continually remove and dispose of.
In response to the abundance of seaweed available that could be used to explore processes for biorefining seaweed, UCL collaborated with the Autonomous University of Coahuila in Mexico. The purpose of the collaboration was to generate new ideas, and to interrogate biochemical processes and projects that could be developed to use the seaweed that is being washed up on the beaches.
Collaboration for idea generation
“My research is on developing sustainable processes and technologies to biorefine seaweed,” explains Emily. “The ultimate aim is to find ways to recover and harness the carbon to move away from our reliance on fossil fuels.” Emily was keen to collaborate with Dr Héctor A. Ruiz from the Autonomous University of Coahuila as their research interests are similar, and the Global Engagement Funds provided the means to set up a formal and structured collaboration.
“The seaweed infestation is a huge problem in Mexico,” says Emily. “But for us as biochemical engineers and bio-scientists, it’s gold.” Seaweed is currently grown and farmed in the ocean, but harvesting this seaweed is expensive and energy-intensive. The seaweed washed up naturally by the ocean currents was an opportunity to take seaweed to the lab, biorefine it and recover usable products.”
The original purpose of the project was to organise seminars and workshops between the groups at UCL and the Autonomous University of Coahuila. This would form the basis of idea exchange to develop a raft of ways the seaweed could be used. Due to the travel restrictions that were introduced due to the Covid-19 pandemic, these in-person seminars and workshops could no longer happen. So instead the team hired a research assistant, UCL Biochemical Engineering graduate Nicole de Gier, to organise an online seminar and workshop, plus do a thorough literary search and write a review paper on the Sargassum infestation in Mexico, which will be published in a research journal.
Growing connections for further collaboration
The two day online workshop and seminar included Emily, Héctor, PhD students and postdoctoral researchers with an interest in the biorefinery field. Everyone gave a presentation on their research, and the workshop served as an opportunity to discuss new ideas, identify research synergies and overlap, and identify new areas or projects to collaborate on in the future. Emily was also pleased by an unexpected outcome of the sessions. “When the PhD students were presenting, they would often mention problems they had in the lab, or experiments that didn’t work out,” Emily explains. “It turned out that other students had similar experiences. It was wonderful to see them troubleshoot together and identify solutions.”
She goes on to say: “As an academic researcher, you want to facilitate these new links for the next generation of scientists that are coming through. Now these students have a new international collaboration, with contacts they can get in touch with and possibly collaborate with in the future.”
The seminar and workshop was so well received by the participants at both UCL and the Autonomous University of Coahuila, the group has decided to have a similar online session annually. Emily and Héctor have also written a review paper about seaweed biorefineries as a result of this collaboration, which has been well received and cited.
Important personal development
As well as enabling this important international collaboration on a topical issue, the Global Engagement Funds also helped Emily with her personal and professional development. “I had never managed a research assistant before,” Emily says. “It was really good experience for me to supervise an early career scientist.”
Emily has also been invited to be an international advisor for some of Héctor’s PhD students. “It’s an absolute honour for them to ask me to help them advance their research,” she said.
Emily hopes the ideas being exchanged through the collaboration with Héctor and the Autonomous University of Coahuila will grow into more research collaborations in the future, especially since the seaweed infestation in Mexico is an ongoing problem. A research proposal has already been written and submitted to the EPSRC that includes Héctor as an international collaborator. “We're still very much in the early stages of the research and development of biorefining seaweed,” Emily explains. “This is exactly why we need new collaborations, and I think taking an international approach where different research groups work together will enable a much-needed multidisciplinary solution.”
- Macroalgal biorefinery concepts for the circular bioeconomy: A review on biotechnological developments and future perspectives
- Background reading: Can science solve the seaweed problem on Mexican beaches? (National Geographic)
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