Sustainability & Environment

We’re starting to see those silent cars everywhere. The electric vehicle evolution is gradually seeping onto our roads. Every month or two, we also seem to read about another wind power generation record in the UK, or some super solar cell. Pension funds and big corporations are coming under great pressure to divest from fossil fuels. The clean power revolution is well underway.

And yet the third biggest polluter of the planet - after power and transport - awaits the seismic shift that will shake it to its foundations. Indeed, cement production still accounts for roughly 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem is that creating cement is an energy-intense, polluting process with firing temperatures of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit needed to create it, and plenty of CO2 released during processing.

SCIblog - 18 May 2021 - Cementing a Greener Legacy - Image of a crane and construction site

Green cement and concrete are needed to reduce emissions in construction and other industries.

But there are signs that the processing could become cleaner. A recent report released by Market Research Future (MRFR) predicts that concrete (of which cement is a key ingredient) use could get appreciably greener over the next six years. It estimates that the global green concrete market size will grow at a 9.45% compound annual growth rate from 2020-27.

MRFR attributes this rise to several factors. First, there is a growing demand for green or recycled concrete (that incorporates waste components) within the construction industry. For builders, it enhances their environmental credentials and will increasingly become a business-savvy investment as governments seek to reduce carbon emissions.

Green building codes and the creation of energy-efficient infrastructure will also help propel this growth, and changing building regulations in massive markets including China, India, and the Middle East will result in many manufacturers looking to develop different material combinations. Increasingly, we’re seeing manufacturers turning to less energy-intensive manufacturing methods and investigating which waste materials could be used to create a greener cement or concrete that doesn’t compromise on performance.

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology, in Sweden, have even been developing a rechargeable cement-based battery. If it ever comes to pass, this could be used to create buildings that store energy like giant batteries. Some manufacturers are also looking into the electrification of kilns, which isn’t feasible yet, and carbon capture and storage has long been mooted as a means to reduce industrial emissions.

SCIblog - 18 May 2021 - Cementing a Greener Legacy - Chalmers University graphic

Imagine an entire twenty storey concrete building that can store energy like a giant battery. This could be possible if Chalmers University’s cement-based rechargeable batteries come to fruition. | Image Credit: Yen Strandqvist/Chalmers University of Technology

The good news is that we don’t just have people all over the world working on low-carbon materials and manufacturing methods; experts in the UK are tackling the issue right now. On 2 June, speakers at the SCI’s free webinar, Ultra-low carbon concrete, a sustainable future, will examine some of the exciting initiatives underway.

These include an award winning, industry accepted ultra-low carbon alternative to traditional cement, which could result in CO2 savings of up to 78%, and the potential of using offsite manufacturing to provide commercial projects with a sustainable structural frame solution.

As with transport and power, cement is getting greener increment by increment. But with drastic climate change consequences dangling above us like the Sword of Damocles, now is the time for concrete action.

Register for Ultra-low carbon concrete, a sustainable future today at: https://bit.ly/33WfjkN.

Agrifood

Perennial bush soft fruits are among the crown jewels of gardening. Gooseberries, red currants and blackcurrants when well established will annually reward with crops of very tasty ripe fruit which provide exceptional health benefits. These bushes will mature into quite sizeable plants so only relatively few, maybe one to five of each will be sufficient for most home gardeners or allotment owners.

Header image: Gooseberries | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

The art of successful establishment lies in initial care and planting. Buy good quality dormant plants from reputable nurseries or garden centres. Plunge the roots deeply in a bucket of water and plant as quickly as possible. These crops need rich fertile soil which is weed free and has recently been dug over with the incorporation of farmyard manure or well-rotted compost. Each bush requires ample growing space with at least a one metre distance within and between rows.

Take out a deep planting hole and soak with water. Place the new bush into the hole, spreading out the root system in all directions. Add mycorrhizal powder around and over the roots, which encourages growth promoting fungi. These colonise the roots, aiding nutrient uptake and protecting from soil borne pathogens. Carefully fold the soil back around the roots, shaking the plant. That settles soil in and around the roots and up to the collar which shows where the plant had grown in the nursery. Tread around the collar to firm the plant and add more water. Normally, planting is completed in late winter to early spring before growth commences.

SCIblog - 10 May 2021 - Geoff Dixon - image of redcurrants

Redcurrants | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

As buds open in spring, keep the plants well-watered. It is crucially important that the young bushes do not suffer drought stress, especially during the first summer. Supplement watering with occasional applications of liquid feed which contains large concentrations of potassium and phosphate plus micro nutrients. Remove all weeds and flowers in this first year. That concentrates all the products of photosynthesis into root, shoot and leaf formation for future seasons. Clean up around the plants in autumn, removing dead leaves that might harbour disease-causing pathogens.

These plants will flower and fruit from the first establishment year. Each bush will produce fruit which is a succulent and rewarding source of health-promoting vitamins and nutrients.

SCIblog - 10 May 2021 - Geoff Dixon - image of blackcurrants

Blackcurrants | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

Blackcurrants are a fine source of vitamin C and have twice the antioxidant content of blueberries. Redcurrants are sources of flavonoids and vitamin B, while gooseberries are rich in dietary fibre, copper, manganese potassium and vitamins C, B5 and B6.

Blackbirds also like these fruits so netting or cages are needed! Continuing careful husbandry will yield a succession of expanding and rewarding crops.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

Sustainability & Environment

Sometimes, when you try to solve one problem, you create another. A famous example is the introduction of the cane toad into Australia from Hawaii in 1935. The toads were introduced as a means of eliminating a beetle species that ravaged sugar cane crops; but now, almost a century later, Western Australia is inundated with these venomous, eco-system-meddling creatures.

In a similar spirit, disposable face masks could help tackle one urgent problem while creating another. According to researchers at Swansea University, nanoplastics and other potentially harmful pollutants have been found in many disposable face masks, including the ones some use to ward off Covid-19.

After submerging various types of common disposable face masks in water, the scientists observed the release of high levels of pollutants including lead, antimony, copper, and plastic fibres. Worryingly, they found significant levels of pollutants from all the masks tested.

SCIblog - 7th May 2021 - No masking the pollution problem - image of mask fibres

Microscope image of microfibres released from children's mask: the colourful fibres are from the cartoon patterns | Credit: Swansea University

Obviously, millions have been wearing single-use masks around the world to protect against the Covid-19 pandemic, but the release of potentially harmful substances into the natural environment and water supply could have far-reaching consequences for all of us.

‘The production of disposable plastic face masks (DPFs) in China alone has reached approximately 200 million a day in a global effort to tackle the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus,’ says project lead Dr Sarper Sarp, whose team’s work has been published on Science Direct. ‘However, improper and unregulated disposal of these DPFs is a plastic pollution problem we are already facing and will only continue to intensify.

SCIblog - 7th May 2021 - No masking the pollution problem - image of woman disposing of mask in bin

The presence of potentially toxic pollutants in some face masks could pose health and environmental risks.

‘There is a concerning amount of evidence that suggests that DPFs waste can potentially have a substantial environmental impact by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water. Many of the toxic pollutants found in our research have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and our findings show that DPFs could be one of the main sources of these environmental contaminants during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.’

The Swansea scientists say stricter regulations must be enforced during manufacturing and disposal of single-use masks, and more work must be done to understand the effect of particle leaching on public health and on the environment. Another area they believe warrants investigation is the amount of particles inhaled by those wearing these masks.

‘This is a significant concern,’ adds Sarp, ‘especially for health care professionals, key workers, and children who are required to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day.’

Careers

In the latest blog in our SCI Mid-Career group series, Dr Jessica Gould, Applications Team Leader of Energy Technologies at Croda International, speaks about finding time for career development and the importance of taking on responsibilities outside her normal job role.SCI Members - Mid-Career Perspective - Jessica Gould

Please tell us about yourself and your career journey.
I started off my chemistry career with a Master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Liverpool, during which I spent a year working in the chemical industry at Cognis Ltd. Following my undergraduate degree, I began a PhD at the University of Nottingham that looked at developing novel coordination polymers for hydrogen storage as part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Centre for Doctoral Training in Hydrogen, Fuels Cells and their Applications.

After completing my PhD, I started work at Croda in 2013. I have predominantly worked as a research scientist in the UK Synthesis team, specialising in acrylic polymerisation. However, in early 2020 I changed roles to work as the Team Leader of our Energy Technologies Applications team. This area focuses on developing additives for the renewable energy sector, looking at electric vehicles, EV fluids, wind turbines and battery additives.

What are your keys to managing your career at this stage?
Compared to early career development, where the focus is on learning the key skills required for your job, at a mid-career stage other skills such as networking become more important. I do this by attending events both inside and outside my workplace. I also use various online platforms such as Microsoft Teams and LinkedIn to maintain and foster relationships within my network.

I also think that taking on responsibilities from outside your normal job role is important in managing your career at the mid-stage level. This allows you to continue to learn new skills even if you feel you are well settled in your main role. My manager helps me identify these opportunities and manage them within my current job role. My organisation also provides training courses that allow me to further develop these skills.

What challenges are there around mid-career support?
From my perspective, the challenge around mid-career support is finding time within your existing schedule for career development. People can often feel like they’ve stagnated if it takes a long time to progress or if they see limited job opportunities above them. Training, courses, networks and other experiences can help them learn and feel challenged. These provide an excellent way to maintain development at a mid-career level.

What additional support could SCI give to mid-career professionals?
Mentoring is an excellent way for people to feel supported in their career development. Expanding and continuing our mentoring scheme would be a great way for SCI to support its members.

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Sustainability & Environment

Every tin can dropped into our recycling bins is a small act of faith. We hope each one is recycled, yet the figures take some of that fervour from our faith. According to UK government statistics from 2015-2018, only about 45% of our household waste is recycled. Similarly, the UN has noted that only 20% of the 50 million tonnes of electronics waste produced globally each year is formally recycled. So, it’s fair to say we could do better.

Thankfully, thousands of people around the globe are working on these problems and two recent developments give us grounds for optimism. The first involves upcycling metal waste into multi-purpose aerogels, and the second involves fully recyclable printed electronics that include a wood-derived ink. 

Upcycling metal waste

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) claim to have turned one person’s trash into treasure with a low-energy way to convert aluminium and magnesium waste into high value aerogels for the construction industry.

To do this, they ground the metal waste into a powder and mixed it with chemical cross-linkers. They heated this mixture in an oven before freeze-drying it and turning it into an aerogel. The team says this simple process makes their aerogels 50% cheaper than commercially available silica aerogels.

Aerogels have many useful properties. They are absorbent, extremely light (hence the frozen smoke nickname), and have impressive thermal and sound insulation capabilities. This makes them useful as thermal insulation materials in buildings, in piping systems, or for cleaning up oil spills. However, the NUS team has loftier goals than that.

Mount of metal recycling at centre

There is a great need for less energy intensive ways to recycle metals

“Our aluminium aerogel is 30 times lighter and insulates heat 21 times better than conventional concrete,” research team leader Associate Professor Duong Hai-Minh whose research has been published in the Journal of Material Cycles and Waste Management. “When optical fibres are added during the mixing stage, we can create translucent aluminium aerogels which, as building materials, can improve natural lighting, reduce energy consumption for lighting and illuminate dark or windowless areas. Translucent concrete can also be used to construct sidewalks and speed bumps that light up at night to improve safety for pedestrians and road traffic.”

The aerogels could even be used for cell cultivation. Professor Duong explains: “Microcarriers are micro-size beads for cells to anchor and grow. Our first trials were performed on stem cells, using a cell line commonly used for testing of drugs as well as cosmetics, and the results are very encouraging.”

Whatever about these speculative applications, this upcycling method will hopefully help us find new homes for all types of metal waste including metal chips and discarded electronics.

Recyclable printed electronics

A team at Duke University has also made interesting progress in reducing electronic waste. The researchers claim to have developed fully recyclable printed electronics that could be used and reused in a wide range of sensors.

The researchers’ transistor is made from three carbon-based inks that can be printed onto paper, and their use of a wood-derived insulating dielectric ink called nanocellulose helps make them recyclable. Carbon nanotubes and graphene inks are also used for the semiconductors and conductors, respectively.

3D printing device

A 3D rendering of the first fully recyclable, printed transistor.
CREDIT: Duke University

“Nanocellulose is biodegradable and has been used in applications like packaging for years,” said Aaron Franklin, the Addy Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke, whose research has been published in Nature Electronics. “And while people have long known about its potential applications as an insulator in electronics, nobody has figured out how to use it in a printable ink before. That’s one of the keys to making these fully recyclable devices functional.”

The team has developed a way to suspend these nanocellulose crystals (extracted from wood fibres) with a sprinkling of table salt to create an ink that performs well in its printed transistors. At the end of their working life, these devices can be submerged in baths with gently vibrating sound waves to recover the carbon nanotubes and graphene components. These materials can be reused and the nanocellulose can be recycled just like ordinary paper.

The team conceded that these devices won’t ruffle the trillion dollar silicon-based computer component market, but they do think these devices could be useful in simple environmental sensors to monitor building energy use or in biosensing patches to track medical conditions.

Read about the Duke University research here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41928-021-00574-0
Take a look at the NUS study here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10163-020-01169-1

Careers

In this blog series, members of the SCI Mid-Career group offer advice on career management and how to overcome career challenges.

SCI Committee - Mid-Careers - Dan Smith

In our latest interview, we hear from Dan Smith, Head of Portfolio at CatSci Ltd.

Please tell us about yourself and your career journey.
I have more than six years’ experience at CatSci, an SME that specialises in process development for the drug development programmes of our partners. In my current role as Head of Portfolio, I oversee the delivery of our customer projects and support the technical qualification of new business and resourcing across our technical team. Previously, as Principal Scientist I led projects focused on route optimisation for Phase I-II and greatly enjoyed contributing to CatSci’s growth from four practical lab scientists to a current team of 24.

Prior to CatSci, I focused on both applied catalysis and fundamental research in both the UK and US as a postdoc for five years, including at the University of York and Texas A&M University. This provided an opportunity to explore and develop a range of skills such as computational modelling and basic programming that I have found useful since. In terms of earlier education, I have both PhD and Master’s degrees in Chemistry from Durham University.

What are your keys to managing your career at this stage?
As one begins to specialise or diversify at the mid-career stage, often there is a less well defined path. However, that comes with a multitude of possibilities. A lot of my current learning is focused on broadening my skillset across disciplines, such as finance, that help contextualise a wide range of business activities. Relative to early career development, there can be fewer individuals to draw on for their greater experience, especially in smaller departments or organisations. Instead, actively engaging those outside of one’s day-to-day environment for their views can be very helpful.

What challenges are there around mid-career support?
One of the biggest challenges is around time, and setting aside time to reflect on larger strategic objectives. Ring fencing time is often difficult. However, conferences can provide this free space to focus on opportunities and engage others for different perspectives.

What additional support could SCI give to mid-career professionals?
In the evolving shift to a more virtual world, change has accelerated due to the pandemic, and digital technology is of even greater importance to virtually all areas of work. SCI members may benefit from support in these areas, specifically in relation to new ways of working in the chemical industry.

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Sustainability & Environment

To some, the almond is a villain. This admittedly tasty nut takes an extraordinary amount of water to grow (1.1 gallons per nut) and some in California say almond cultivation has contributed to drought.

And so it is no surprise to see the almond lined up in the rogue’s gallery of the thirstiest foods. In a study in the journal Nature Food, University of Michigan (U-M) and Tulane University researchers assessed how the food we eat affects water scarcity.

Meat consumption was found to be the biggest culprit in the US, with the hooves and feet of livestock accounting for 31% of the water scarcity footprint. Within the meat category, beef is the thirstiest, with almost six times more water consumption than chicken.

SCIblog 19 April 2021 - How thirsty is your food? - image of almond farm, almond harvesting

Almond crops in California have come under heavy criticism due to their heavy water consumption

However, the picture is a little more nuanced. Lead author Martin Heller, of U-M's School for Environment and Sustainability, explains: “Beef is the largest dietary contributor to the water scarcity footprint, as it is for the carbon footprint. But the dominance of animal-based food is diminished somewhat in the water scarcity footprint, in part because the production of feed grains for animals is distributed throughout less water-scarce regions, whereas the production of vegetables, fruits and nuts is concentrated in water-scarce regions of the United States, namely the West Coast states and the arid Southwest.”

Certain types of diets drain the water supply. People who eat large quantities of beef, nuts such as the infamous almond, walnut, and cashew, and a high proportion of water-intense fruits and vegetables including lemon, avocado, asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower take a heavy toll on the water footprint.

SCIblog 19 April 2021 - How thirsty is your food? - image of a bowl of roasted brussel sprouts

The Brussels sprout is not just for Christmas… it is a less water intense option for your dinner table.

“The water-use impacts of food production should be a key consideration of sustainable diets,” adds study co-author Diego Rose of Tulane University. “There is a lot of variation in the way people eat, so having a picture with this sort of granularity – at the individual level – enables a more nuanced understanding of potential policies and educational campaigns to promote sustainable diets.”

So, what do you do the next time you feel a pang of water guilt? According to the researchers, you could swear off asparagus and that crushed avocado on your toast and replace them with less water intense foods such as fresh peas, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and kale (but maybe not on your toast). Those beef steaks and hamburgers could make way for other protein sources, such as chicken, pork, and soybeans, and you could graze on peanuts and seeds instead of those honey roasted almonds you love so dearly. Just think of all those gallons of water you’ll save.

For more on this study, visit: https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-021-00256-2