On 26th September, the city of York was one among the 200+ European cities simultaneously hosting Researchers’ Night events! How mind-blowing the thought of thousands of researchers across the continent pulling off what was a fantastic occasion for social participation and knowledge sharing! I could lose myself wondering about all the individuals involved, all getting ready to set up their activities and exhibitions and to share the passion for their work. So many life-stories behind each one, so many ambitions, efforts, hopes! GreenSTEMS was there, in its first public exhibit and it was just incredible! Our exhibition run from 4pm until 9.30pm as part of the Smart & Green section of YorNight event, and was located in a dedicated marquee in King’s Manor, a terrific venue in the heart of town!
At our stand there were chemists, biologists and environmental scientists eager to take you with them in a journey around the world, a sustainable one! In fact, the overarching theme of the greenSTEMS exhibition was ‘waste’, and how we should start considering it as a rich resource rather than a mere refuse. Incredible volumes of waste biomass are produced all around the world, filling up landfill sites and being utterly under-utilised. Yet these natural, renewable materials conceal an enormous value and could play a revolutionary role in our future economic, social and environmental development! Sustainability is all about joining together three aspects and this is the message that the greenSTEMS team was enthusiastically delivering last night!
Jen Chapman, our representative for Environment studies, introduced our visitors to the cost and impact of bio-waste around the world with the aid of a big map behind us displaying several samples of agri-food waste being investigated by our sustainable scientists: Chinese seaweed, Indian straw, British pea-pods, Brazilian coffee grounds, etc.
Our chemists group made by Dr Ian Ingram, Dr Jennie Dodson, Dr Tom Dugmore, Ceren Ulger and myself, presented the example of a value-added chemical which can be extracted from waste-orange peel: limonene. This versatile, scented, oily compound can be used as natural and safer alternative to petrochemical-based solvents for its outstanding ability to dissolve polymers and other materials. During the exhibition we demonstrated to visitors – especially children! – how just few drops of limonene could make a polystyrene packaging bead quickly “disappear”! Several potential applications of this interesting bio-based solvent are being explored in Green Chemistry Centre of Excellence in York.
A large number of biologists have also manned our stand, describing the recent successes of the “Gribble project” – also recently featured in a report on Channel 4 – developed by researchers at the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) in York. Our members Kyriakos Tzafestas, Nicola Oates, Nurashikin Ihsan and Federico Sabbadin from CNAP – pictured herein – invited visitors to meet the gribbles and closely watch them moving around and eating small woody sticks. What makes these tiny marine species so exciting is their ability to digest ligno-cellulosic material into simple sugars, which could then be fermented into second-generation bio-fuels – i.e. those produced from waste biomass rather than from dedicated crops that could dangerously compete with food supplies.
The turn out at King’s Manor was impressive, and the feedback from visitors was really amazing! Children were absolutely captivated by our ‘magic’ quick experiments and loved digging their hands – and noses! – into the different samples of biomass on display! Likewise, adult guests seemed fascinated by the scale of the bio-waste issue and opportunity and actively engaged in detailed discussions with our researchers.
What I found as one of the greatest outcomes of this event was the wonderful encouragement we received as a group for our ambitious interdisciplinary initiative. As some visitors and colleague presenters pointed out, it is big challenge to get disciplines to communicate and work together. Historically, the various disciplines of natural and social sciences have progressed fairly independently with very little overlap – and with a fair amount of preconceptions on one another. To date, the serious global challenges we are facing, such as climate change and resource wastefulness, are calling for joint action by all disciplines and sectors in order to timely develop means for our sustainable development. Through greenSTEMS, we hope to catalyse this much needed interaction among York scientists as they – WE! – will play a determinant role in the next generation’s technological development. YorNight was a fantastic occasion for us to get out and interact with members of the public as well as with other researchers and projects! Keep up with our upcoming events and other exciting projects starting this academic year!— Giulia Paggiola (Chair of greenSTEMS)