PhD Student in Soft-Matter Physics, University of Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Research focus: fabrication of bio-based materials using renewable ingredients extracted from plants
Many everyday products such as plastic containers, food packaging, and clothing are made of petrochemical-based polymers, but these polymers are known to have a detrimental impact on ecosystems. Beyond the fact that they are made of petroleum which is not endlessly available, fossil fuel-based polymers are rarely recycled and often end up in landfills where they leach toxins, or in the ocean, threatening aquatic animals and birds. Moreover, as plastic materials degrade in into microplastics, they can also be ingested by humans and cause adverse health effects.
Thus, there has been a strong motivation to find alternatives to these polymers to decouple plastics from fossil resources. Cellulose, the most abundant polymer on Earth, is an excellent alternative thanks to its biodegradability, low cost, and renewable nature. Cellulose can be found in the cell wall of virtually all plant matter. In order to not compete with existing food sources, Emma chose to extract the cellulose from a waste product: citrus peels. Using citrus peels, soybean oil, and curcumin, she was able to fabricate edible films that can be used as a packaging material that possesses antibacterial and antioxidant properties. These properties are essential for food packaging applications as food is often prone to bacterial growth and oxidation, which can affect the shelf life of the product. She has thoroughly investigated the mechanical, optical, and thermal properties of the films to ensure their suitability as packaging materials.
Moreover, the films are fully redispersible in water under high ultrasonication. So the starting materials can be recovered and refabricated with minimal component loss. Even if they do not make it to a proper disposal site, the fact that they are made from plant-based ingredients with minimal chemical processing means that they present little harm to the environment.
The jury was impressed by the strong application orientation of Emma’s research and by her social and community involvement.