Agrifood

The iris family (Iridaceae) provides gardeners with a glorious array of colourful and frequently well scented flowers. Originating from both tropical and temperate regions, some such as freesias are best cultivated under protection. Others such as gladioli and crocus are reliable garden plants.

Iris, or fleur-de-lis, is one of the larger genera, offering colour and interest from the very earliest springtime through to May and June. The earliest and always most welcome is Iris unguicularis (previously Iris stylosa). Flowers (see illustration 1) emerge in the darkest days of December, encouraged by the warming effects of climate change.

SCIblog - 14 June 2021 - Irises by Geoff Dixon - image of Iris unguicularis (syn Iris stylosa)

Illustration 1: Iris unguicularis (syn Iris stylosa) / Image credit: Geoff Dixon

Originating from North Africa, it thrives in south facing dry borders, preferably under a wall where winter sunshine encourages proliferous flowering. Every few years, lift and divide the clump of small rhizomes after flowering has finished. Remove older growth and replant younger roots with a modest handful of compost and water well. Established clumps can be cut back, removing dead leaves during late spring.

By contrast Iris pseudacorus, the water flag, thrives in wet, boggy places or even when immersed in water. Found across Europe, it is a British native plant producing vivid yellow flowers that are rich sources of nectar. In parts of Scotland it forms large expanses of natural growth that are favoured by nesting corncrakes. It can be cultivated as part of water purification programmes since nitrogen and phosphorus are extracted by the vigorous root systems.

SCIblog - 14 June 2021 - Irises by Geoff Dixon - image of Iris germanica

Illustration 2: Iris germanica / Image credit: Geoff Dixon

The prima donna is Iris germanica, the flag or bearded iris. These are stately plants, producing flower spikes up to one metre high and furnished with multicoloured flowers (illustration 2). Upright standard petals can contrast completely with the falls which bear a beard of yellow pollen bearing stamens. Fertiliser should be applied as the flower spikes appear. It should be applied again after flowering, stimulating root growth in anticipation of a colourful display in the next season.

SCIblog - 14 June 2021 - Irises by Geoff Dixon - image of Iris Rhizome ready for division

Illustration 3: Rhizome ready for division / Image credit: Geoff Dixon

The rhizome is a large swollen ground-creeping stem from which side shoots develop with a terminal area of older tissue (illustration 3). Every four or five years, the rhizomes should be lifted and divided by removing the terminal tissue and splitting off side shoots with a sharp knife. These and the main rhizome should be replanted carefully, ensuring that they rest on the soil surface with their fibrous roots buried beneath them. Multiplication eventually provides a border filled with very colourful displays that can persist for a month since flowers frequently emerge along most of the spike.

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

Health & Wellbeing

Watching plants grow in a hydroponic contraption is an education. The plants sit in foam under UV light while their roots feed on water fortified by plant feed. There is no soil. No thirst. No room for death by lazy gardener. The results, as any hydroponic enthusiast will tell you, are startling.

So, what if we were to adopt this targeted, optimised approach to our own nutrition? What would happen if he were to ditch that delicious Sunday roast in favour of a shake that contains all the vitamins and minerals your body needs? Admittedly, it sounds terrible, but people do something similar already. Many gym obsessives take protein shakes religiously to feed their bodies’ impressive musculature, while others skip meals entirely in favour of such drinks and supplements.

SCIblog - 8 June 2021 - image of an organic hydroponic vegetable cultivation farm

An organic hydroponic vegetable cultivation farm

A recent study conducted by the Cherab Foundation, which featured in the Alternative Therapies journal, concludes that nutritional supplements may also help boost our brain function. After giving 77 people a vitamin and meal replacement product called IQed Smart Nutrition, the researchers from the non-profit organisation found that the supplement boosted brain function in a range of areas and could help people with autism, apraxia, and ADHD.

Almost 84% of participants reported deficits in speech and communication prior to taking the nutritional supplements. After taking the product, more than 85% said their expressive speech had improved while 67% of respondents reported improvements in other areas including focus, language understanding, oral motor skills, and physical and behavioural health.

Overall, 64% of participants reported positive changes within two weeks. According to the Cherab Foundation, the research aims “to guide future research into the dietary interventions and potential management of neurological conditions using natural food products, vitamin and mineral supplements”.

So, what ingredients are in the supplement-infused chocolate shake that will replace the wood-fired pizza you’re due to have next Friday evening? According to IQed, its powdered chocolate offering contains everything from brown rice, apple fibres, turmeric, and green tea, to copper gluconate, amalaki, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds.

SCIblog - 8 June 2021 - image of superfoods

Turmeric, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds have hopped onto the superfood bandwagon in recent years.

Some will dismiss these supplements as hocus-pocus, but the potential benefits of optimised nutrition are exciting nonetheless. If some wince-inducing elixir makes us healthier, stronger and live longer, perhaps it’s worth investigating further?

The Cherub Foundation works to improve the communication skills, education, and advocacy of children on the neurological spectrum. To read more about its study, visit: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32088673/

Agrifood

Farmers today are under pressure to produce more food with fewer resources and without damaging the environment around them. Faced with factors such as land pressures, soil fertility, pest management and agricultural policy, farming today is all about efficiency, time and energy saving technology, and the drive to make solutions as sustainable as possible.

This obviously poses the question: what can the agrochemical industry do to increase output on one hand and protect the environment and improve applicator safety on the other?

Formulation technology is becoming increasingly important in answering this question. By designing innovative formulations, agrochemical products can become more effective as well as safer. Without the right formulation, even the best active substance is worth nothing.

Most pesticidal active ingredients are not water soluble or water dispersible, yet the most common mode of delivery is via spray applications of aqueous dilutions. It is necessary to create a formulation of the active ingredient in a way that makes it easily dispersible in water and able to maintain stability over the application time period. Changing what goes into this formulation alongside the active ingredient is crucial in how effectively that material is delivered to where it needs to be.

SCIblog - 1 June 2021 - The role of formulations in agriculture - illustration of EC Formulation

Demonstration of an EC formulation.

Two of the most common types of agricultural formulations that tackle this issue are emulsifiable concentrates (ECs) and suspension concentrates (SCs). EC formulations are suited to active ingredients that are oil soluble and have low melting points. As they are purely a solubilised active ingredient in an oil or solvent with the presence of emulsifiers, they are simple to manufacture and relatively easy to stabilise. The presence of an oil also enhances the biological activity of the application, making them more efficacious in the field.

SCIblog - 1 June 2021 - The role of formulations in agriculture - illustration of SC Formulation

SC formulation, with an indication of what occurs upon dilution into the spray tank prior to application.

SC formulations, on the other hand, are suitable for insoluble active ingredients and those with higher melting points. Crucially, as water is the continuous phase, they are also typically safer and more convenient in use for the operator; there is an absence of dust, flammable liquids, and volatile organic compounds.

Built into each of these formulations alongside the active ingredient are formulation additives. Formulation additives, referred to as inert ingredients, are critical to provide the long-term stability to agrochemical products and their ability to mix effectively in the spray tank, making them suitable for [field spray] applications.

While the formulation type targeted is often dictated by the chemical characteristics of the active ingredient, the formulator has the ability to change every element of the spray quality characteristics and agrochemical delivery through selection of formulation additives. Changing both the formulation type and the additives within will habitually have a dramatic effect on the field efficacy of that application and subsequent yield and quality of the crop. Selecting the correct formulation additives is essential in creating a successful formulation, arguably making them as significant as the active ingredient itself.

How formulators learn to map the complex effects within formulations for improved crop protection is just one facet of today’s agriculture challenge.

Interested in learning more about how the formulation of agrochemicals plays its part in feeding the world? Visit: www.crodacropcare.com

Sustainability & Environment

As silicon reaches its solar ceiling, perovskite has emerged as one of the main materials of choice in the next generation of solar panels. Indeed, Oxford PV’s much anticipated perovskite-silicon solar cell could take conversion efficiency well beyond what is currently achieved on the roofs of our homes.

The benefits of perovskite are well known at this stage. It could increase the energy we harvest from the sun and improve solar cell efficiency, and its printability could make fabrication cheaper. However, as with almost everything, there are drawbacks.

According to researchers at the SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre at Swansea University, the solvents used to control the crystallisation of the perovskite during fabrication hinder the large-scale manufacture of printed carbon perovskite cells. This is due to the toxicity and potentially psychoactive effects of these materials.

The SPECIFIC team claims to have found a way around this after discovering a non-toxic biodegradable solvent called γ-Valerolactone. They say this replacement solvent could be used without affecting solar cell performance. Furthermore, they say it is non-toxic, sustainable, and suitable for large-scale manufacturing.

SCIblog - 25 May 2021 - Sharpening Solar - image of solvents used to make solar cells, one toxic, one green

Left - solvent normally used to make solar cells, which is toxic.
Right - new green solvent developed by Swansea University researchers from the SPECIFIC project
| Image Credit: Swansea University

‘This solvent problem was a major barrier, not only restricting large-scale manufacture but holding back research in countries where the solvents are banned,’ said research group leader Professor Trystan Watson. ‘We hope our discovery will enable countries that have previously been unable to participate in this research to become part of the community and accelerate the development of cleaner, greener energy.’

As the conversion efficiency of solar panels improves, cost is also key. What if you could create the same solar panels in a more cost-efficient way? That was part of the thinking behind another recent innovation in Singapore, where Maxeon Solar Technologies has created frameless, lightweight rooftop solar panels. These solar panels can be adhered directly to a roof without racking or mounting systems and allegedly perform just as well as standard solar panels.

SCIblog - 25 May 2021 - Sharpening Solar - image of the new Maxeon Air technology platform

The new Maxeon Air technology platform from Maxeon Solar Technologies

‘For close to 50 years, the solar power industry has almost exclusively used glass superstrate panel construction,’ said Jeff Waters, CEO of Maxeon Solar Technologies. ‘As solar panels have increased in size, and the cost of solar cells has been dramatically reduced, the cost of transporting, installing and mounting large glass panels has become a relatively larger portion of total system cost. With Maxeon Air technology, we can now develop products that reduce these costs while opening up completely new market opportunities such as low-load commercial rooftops.’

The idea is to use these peel-and-stick designs on low-load roofs that cannot support the weight of conventional solar systems; and they will be rolled out in 2022. Time will tell whether the innovations in Swansea and Singapore have a bearing on companies’ solar systems, but they provide more evidence of the ingenuity that is making solar power cheaper and more efficient.

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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