South African researchers on shortlist for top awards

Eddie Barnard hopes to bring innovative ideas to the paper and pulp manufacturing industries.

Three South African researchers have made it to the global shortlist of the Blue Sky Young Researchers and Innovation Awards. They were selected from 14 candidates in the South African round.

The awards, launched in 2016 by the International Council of Forest and Paper Associations (ICFPA), aim to recognise, celebrate and promote innovations being developed in the global forestry sector.

Justin Phillips and Hester Oosthuizen, both from the University of Pretoria, and Eddie Barnard from Stellenbosch University, go up against another 18 of their peers from around the world, with only three of the finalists earning cash prizes and the opportunity to present their work at the ICFPA’s Global CEO Roundtable virtual discussion on Thursday April 29.

“We are immensely proud of our finalists for making it this far and demonstrating that South Africa can hold its own against the best in the world,” says Jane Molony, executive director of the Paper Manufacturers Association of South Africa (PAMSA). “As a sector we constantly look for ways to support young people with an interest in science and technology and are proud of the career opportunities our member companies can offer them.”

Furniture from paper sludge and cattle dip for killing ticks

Mr Barnard is exploring the commercial viability of using technical lignin (a by-product from the wood pulping phase in pulp or paper making) and pulp and paper sludge (rejected, degraded, and spilled fibres and water from the pulping and paper making processes) to make composite materials.

Lignin has binding properties, which when combined with sludge, could be used to make construction materials such as a replacement for particle board. The use of lignin together with pulp and paper sludge could replace components that would otherwise be produced from fossil-based resources, and reduce associated waste, greenhouse gas emissions and disposal costs.

Bolander spoke to Mr Barnard, who lives in Richards Bay, about how he feels in being nominated. He said: “I feel pleasantly surprised. It is a great honour to be chosen as one of the three finalists to represent SA at an international level.”

He expanded on his aspirations with his research: “The focus of the Blue Sky Awards is to emphasise the UN’s Sustainability goals and with my project aligned to these goals, by producing inexpensive construction materials from pulp and paper mill waste, I hope to ultimately reduce waste emissions, and expand the paper manufacturers’ product range (resulting in job creation and indirectly improving living standards of communities surrounding mills.”

The need to contribute to the sustainability of the production industry in order to improve living standards, while preserving the world, are all factors which motivated him to choose this research field. Goals, he believes, the paper and pulp industry are already focussed on pursuing. “I feel the pulp and paper industry is already aligned with this view, since pulp and paper manufacturers successfully manage the forest plantations used and always strive towards lower emissions and more efficient utilisation of feedstock,” he further explains.

Justin Phillips directed his research at finding new materials for use in pesticide application.

Mr Phillips has looked at how starch and nano-cellulose can be used as a carrier material for pesticide application in the agricultural sector. The insoluble solid active ingredient in the pesticide attaches to the carrier, which is water-soluble and allows for safer and more efficient and safe controlled release of the pesticide, especially in aqueous environments such as animal dipping for tick prevention.

Cellulose is uniquely positioned to substitute many petroleum-based plastics, however it cannot be melt-processed and dissolved using common organic solvents. This is why Ms Oosthuizen examined the efficacy of using choline chloride and ionic liquids, considered greener and less volatile, to make cellulose fluid enough to produce cellulose-based materials using existing polymer processing techniques.

Hester Oosthuizen’s research pursues options to produce greener and less volatile ways to make cellulose fluid.

Wood – a renewable alternative to conventional materials

As a sustainably farmed resource that stores carbon, wood is increasingly being used not only in the built environment for houses and high-rises, but also for its cellulose, lignin and sugars. These elements all have a role in helping the world find renewable and low-carbon alternatives to the likes of plastic, chemicals, steel and concrete.

“Two key advantages that commercially farmed trees bring are their renewability and their carbon storage,” explains Ms Molony. “The fact that trees are sustainably planted, harvested and replenished on the same land makes both wood and paper products renewable and efficient resources. For a low carbon future, it’s tremendously exciting – especially when we look at the kind of research our young scientists are producing.”

An international panel with connections to industry, academia and public policy has been assembled to judge the awards, including:

•Lyndall Bull, Forestry Officer at the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (UN)

•Barbara Tavora Jainchill, Programme Management Officer, Forest Affairs, with the UN Forum on Forests Secretariat

•Fernando L. Garcia Bertolucci, Executive Director of Technology and Innovation at Suzano S.A. and Member of IUFRO

•Professor Gil Garnier, Director of BioPRIA within the Department of Chemical Engineering at Monash University

•John Innes, Dean of the Faculty of Forestry at University of British Columbia

The local round was adjudicated by Valeske Cloete (Mpact), Sanet Minnaar (Sappi) and Mike Nash, former head of PAMSA’s Process Research Unit and experienced chemical engineer.

“South African Martin Wierzbicki was among the top three in the final international award in 2019,” Ms Molony concludes. “We’ll be rooting for this year’s three finalists to go all the way to the top!”

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