The 2018 finals of Imagine Chemistry recently took place in Gothenburg, Sweden. Ten teams were selected to continue collaborating with AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals or one of our partners. We asked the winners to share their thoughts on Imagine Chemistry and working with AkzoNobel Specialty Chemicals. Here we speak with the team from Edinburgh Napier University.

“During the event we were just focused on proving that our concept works. It’s only when we came home and everybody was delighted that we realized we got a much bigger prize than the AkzoNobel award itself.”

Team name: Edinburgh Napier University
Team members: Mark Dorris and Dominic O'Rourke
Location: UK
Mentor: Leif Karlson
Challenge area: Sustainable smart particle technologies
Award won: Chemical support

While the global demand for nanocellulose is large and increasing rapidly, current processes for making it are often inefficient, expensive, use harsh chemicals, and/or limit its end uses. The team from Edinburgh Napier University has devised a cheap, easy, green, and clean way of producing nanocellulose from abundantly available seaweed which uses no harsh chemicals or harsh processes.

Researcher Mark Dorris, who leads the project, has a background in parasitology and immunology. He joined a project at Edinburgh Napier working with a paper company to develop a method to produce nanocellulose from the company’s wood pulp, with the ultimate aim of exploring nanocellulose applications in vaccines. Mark’s team was testing their technology on other feedstocks when a seaweed harvester called up to offer their cellulose byproduct, which turned out to be an ideal feedstock. In the video below, shot midway through the event, Mark gives a bit of background into their project and what they hoped to get out of Imagine Chemistry.

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The team was happy with their prize. Mark says, “In academia what is usually at the top of your mind is a cash injection, to buy new machines and get some new workers in. But we'd already developed our material so we didn’t need any help there. Getting to test our material in different AkzoNobel applications is exactly what we’re looking for.”

They also appreciated the event’s efficient setup. Mark explains, “It was great to talk to people that were at a level in the company where they can just make decisions. In academia it’s definitely not like that. And the feedback we got was great. For experts in sustainability, IP - the sort of things that you think about but you don’t devote much time to - to come in and tell you in five minutes what you need to do and what you need to know was invaluable."

But there were also more intangible benefits to the experience. “A key thing we got from Imagine Chemistry was a validation of our work. It can be hard when you come up with something novel. You think everyone will fall over themselves trying to get it, but convincing people is a long process. The way you really get validation is to go outside, where people who don’t know you or anything about you just look at your work and say, these guys are onto something.

“It was good for us to take that validation back to the university. You find that people are more interested in your work – interested in working on it and in supporting it. During the event we were just focused on proving that our concept works. It’s only when we came home and everybody was delighted that we realized we got a much bigger prize than the AkzoNobel award itself.”

Mark feels optimistic about the future. “We’ll test our material in different applications, and if it does what we think it will do and it saves costs and energy for AkzoNobel then it’ll be a win-win all around. Even if nothing comes from it we will still get important testing done and people will hear about our material. I’m already getting calls from people wanting to test it in different applications.”

The first step is for the team to start making as much of their nanocellulose as possible so that tests can begin. Stay tuned to find out how their collaboration progresses!