NESSE Webinar – Reverse Photosynthesis: A Game Changer In The Industrial Production of Fuels and Chemicals

Editor’s Note: Read about our webinar, hosted at 17:00 GMT on Monday 5th December 2016 by  David Cannella from the Unviersity of Copenhagen based on an article recently published in Nature Communications. Click here to attend the webinar!

Cellulosic biomass conversion into biofuels (ethanol) had for many years led the forefront research. Today we renamed these as advanced fuels, and despite several successful industrial demonstration plant applications, little of these products reach out the society. The reason is mainly due to the market competition against fossil fuels. Seeking new and more efficient ways of converting the renewable lignocellulosic biomass with enzymes into chemical building blocks (sugars and phenols), the energy of sunlight has been applied for accelerating the activity of the key role enzyme LPMO. LPMO or Lytic Polysaccharide Monooxygenase is a redox enzyme which cut the cellulose chains via an oxidation reaction: consuming a molecule of dioxygen and with the expenses of 2 electrons it cut the cellulose chain releasing one molecule of water. Working in synergy with hydrolytic cellulases, LPMO accelerates the conversion of cellulose to glucose or if used alone produce an array of oligosaccharides. LPMO is now a key component of industrial cellulase cocktails. Here it will be presented a new way of accelerating the activity of LPMO via transferring the electrons from the antenna pigments (chlorophyllin or thylakoids) upon excitation with sunlight. Given the utilization of plant photosynthetic components (pigments) and the consumption of their products (dioxygen and carbohydrate) this technology has been called in popular terms “reverse photosynthesis”.            

David Cannella is a biotechnologist granted by the Danish Research Council for independent research (DFF), with a strong interest in sustainable conversion of biomass in valuable products and energy. Graduated at University of Rome-Sapienza, has obtained his PhD in second generation biofuels production at University of Copenhagen, Denmark where is now enrolled as PostDoc. His multidisciplinary approach to research regards a mix of biochemistry, microbiology, bioprocesses integration, analytical chemistry and lately photo-biochemistry. At today he is seeking at light powered enzymatic biomass transformation into chemicals or food additives, and at the confirmation of the so “imprecisely called reverse photosynthesis” processes happening in Nature. He has been visiting various research institutes: CTBE-Brazil, Chalmers University-Sweden, University of Rome Sapienza-Italy.












Five Trends Driving Change in Research for Development

Editor’s Note: Here, our Executive Director Jennie Dodson explains some of the recent work she has been doing for The UK Collaborative on Development Sciences (UKCDS), focussing on how five trends driving change in research for development relates to early-career scientists and NESSE.

Last year was a pivotal moment for global development. With several agreements relevant to sustainable development signed and a changing funding landscape, I wanted to understand how these may affect the sector. So over the past few months, I’ve had the privilege to speak to thought-leaders around the world to explore what changes will affect research for development over the coming decade.globe-1348777_1280

These fascinating discussions have enabled me to write and launch the UKCDS briefing ’Five trends driving change in research for development’, exploring the key drivers of change and challenges that lie ahead:

  1. A new global development landscape with a commitment to science and technology at its heart but a need for a clear global research agenda to deliver on the ambition.
  2. Uneven, but rising global investment to research and innovation leading to changing geographies of partnership and driving calls for southern-led agendas and research management.
  3. A fragmented and rapidly changing development landscape with rapid economic development, rising inequality or increasing fragility occurring in different countries that could lead to tensions in the focus of development research agendas.
  4. The potential for transformative innovation through social and technological ideas may drive funding, butavoiding hype and scaling successful ideas are imperatives.
  5. ‘Wicked’ problems and interdisciplinary research driving the need for new cultures but also challenging incentives around excellence and impact.

In the UK, new funding sources such as the Global Challenges Research Fund, Ross Fund and expansion of the Newton Fund demonstrate a desire to invest in ‘global public goods’ and support excellent research that has impact with partners around the world. It is an opportunity to conduct transformative research around difficult to untangle ‘nexus’ topics. But, it will require careful effort to respond to these drivers.

What have we learned?

We need better analysis and join-up of existing research funding in low- and middle-income countries. We need a deeper understanding of different models and pathways to ‘healthy’ research & innovation systems for inclusive economic growth and sustainable development to support the best investments by low-, middle- and high-income countries. We need to look at the incentives in funding, publishing and career progression to enable different types of impactful research to flourish. We need to identify the key areas where research can add value around ‘wicked problems’ or nexus topics. We need to improve practice in the scaling, translation and implementation of research & innovation in different contexts.

What does this mean for early-career scientists and NESSE?

Here are four areas that I think our community needs to work on to utilise the opportunities and tackle the challenges highlighted in these trends.

  1. Support new career paths in sustainable science and technology. These trends demonstrate that there will be increasing numbers of careers and funding in sustainable science and innovation. Sustainable Science careers are the jobs of the future in academic, industry and government and we need to support people to forge these new career paths.
  2. All scientists need to be trained in sustainability. We all need a broader vision and understanding of the economic, social and environmental impacts of the research we are developing. We can no longer view science as an activity separate from social, environmental and ethical implications and this needs to be integrated into our training.
  3. We have solutions. We need to demonstrate and communicate to the world that we have solutions that can create a positive, prosperous and sustainable future for us all. To make these reality we need to call for the long-term funding and policies to develop and scale these solutions to rapidly make them a reality.
  4. We need a culture change. Early-career scientists need to be at the table in science and research organisations to focus efforts on the transition to a science culture that supports open science, interdisciplinarity and tackling ‘wicked problems’.

What do you think NESSE could be doing to help move the momentum forwards more rapidly? Please, let us know!

Research Highlight: The ‘Alchemy’ behind the Conversion of Syngas to Bioethanol

Editor’s Note: NESSE Member Pamela Carrillo writes to explain to us the motivation behind her graduate school research in the Chemistry Department at Stony Brook University and Brookhaven National Laboratory, and why she sees herself as a millennial alchemist.  

In the medieval times, alchemy aimed to transform common metals into precious gold.  Now, in grad school, I like to call myself “a millennial alchemist”. Why is this? In the next few paragraphs I will try to give you a little insight into the kind of chemical alchemy I chose for my graduate work.

For my Ph.D. dissertation, I aim to develop a new way to transform waste from biomass/combustion (carbon monoxide/dioxide) and hydrogen into a highly priced commodity, fuel.  Specifically, ethanol.  As of 2014, ~40% of the world’s energy was oil-based of which ~64% corresponds to the transportation system.1 The future scenery for energy demand is of continuous growth due to economic development and increasing world population, hence, the need for a cost-effective and benign alternative fuel.2 Fossil fuel combustion does not only lead to high CO2 emissions but also negatively impacts the environment due to petroleum extraction and refining processes. This may involve pollution, deforestation and social injustice.3


Figure 1. Carbon-Neutral Cycle of Ethanol Production from Biomass-Derived Syngas

Ethanol from biomass-synthetic gas (syngas) conversion is a carbon-neutral and commercially viable solution (Figure 1) since it can be synthesized using existing oil refineries.4, 5 Another advantage is that it does not require large areas for crops compared to biochemically-derived ethanol (not compromising the land needed for food production).  In order to make this possible, heterogeneous catalysts are needed.  The heterogeneous catalysts focused on in this post are composed of metal nanoparticles deposited on high surface area metal oxides, called supports.  These nanocatalysts are composed of metals like rhodium, molybdenum, or copper, which “lay” on top of titanium, silicon dioxide, etc.

The metallic surfaces of the nanocatalysts have the special ability to attract CO/CO2 and H2 (gas molecules) in diverse ways in order to break their bonds and add them one to the other.6 (Figure 2) Due to the rather intricate reaction pathways this can result in the synthesis of ethanol from CO/CO2 hydrogenation, which generates methane, water, other alcohols, hydrocarbons and aldehydes. The gas/solid interactions that occur during CO/CO2 hydrogenation depend on the size of the metallic nanoparticles, their electronic state, physical conditions (pressure and temperature), and composition of the metal/support.7 The product distribution relies on which product is favored energetically. In most cases, methane and hydrocarbons are the preferred products.  Therefore, in order to kinetically favor the production of ethanol, addition of other metals such as iron, molybdenum, , alkali or the modification of the support can be performed.


Figure 2. Schematic Representation of the Intermediates in the Reaction fromm CO Hydrogenation on a Rh (111) Metallic Surface (adapted from reference 6)

Finding the “elixir of life” or in this case the “perfect catalyst” is rather complex since this is a multicomponent system that can exhibit different characteristics than its single components.  Furthermore, when the catalysts go under CO/CO2 and H2 flow, temperature and/or pressure increase.  Additionally, their structure, morphology and electronic properties go under modification. In order to map these changes, an array of advanced techniques is required to probe these catalysts in “action”, in other words, under reaction conditions.  Due to their very small size, elemental composition and evolving behavior, synchrotron (high energy) techniques like X-ray diffraction (Figure 3), spectroscopy, as well as electron microscopy can be used to probe the structural, morphological and electronic requirements for ethanol production. Once this characterization has been performed,  we will be able to begin to design the roadmap for that “perfect” catalyst: one that can convert large quantities of CO/CO2 into high yields of ethanol with very small amounts of other undesirable by-products.


Figure 3. Setting Up an in-situ X-Ray Diffraction Synchrotron Experiment at the Advance Photon Source at Argonne National Laboratory

So far, the most promising catalysts contain noble metals (e.g. rhodium), which are the most rare in the earth’s crust. They have abundances of 10-3-10-6 atoms of element per 106 atoms of silicon.8 Thus, the challenge does not only reside in understanding the guidelines behind the construction of the ideal catalysts but also building ones with earth-abundant elements which can work under low temperatures and pressures to minimize energy input.

Still, this is not the only aspect we should take into account. The conversion of a gaseous stream into a liquid does not only require a multi-component system but also a multidisciplinary team able to optimize the conditions so that this research can be translated into an efficient industrial process.  Even though the science behind catalysis is exciting, it is also rather complex and it plays a pivotal role in the transition from a fossil fuel-based energetic system into a renewable and more sustainable one – the latter being the one that motivated me to follow this path for my graduate project! I never thought that my love for chemistry would drive me to contribute to the protection of the Earth and it is one of the reasons why I passionately pursue it. Even though my “love for ethanol” is big, I know that the use of this alcohol as a sustainable alternative is only a small part of the solution to drive economy and society into a sustainable development model. The sustainable development goal can only truly be attained if several other ways of producing energy efficiently from renewable sources are developed.



1. Agency, I. E., Key World Energy Statistics. 2015.

2. (EIA), U. S. E. I. A., International Energy Outlook 2016.

3. O’Rourke, D.; Connolly, S. Annual Review of Environment and Resources 2003, 28, (1), 587-617.

4. Alonso, D. M.; Bond, J. Q.; Dumesic, J. A. Green Chem. 2010, 12, (9), 1493-1513.

5. Spivey, J. J.; Egbebi, A. Chem. Soc. Rev. 2007, 36, (9), 1514-1528.

6. Choi, Y.; Liu, P. Journal of the American Chemical Society 2009, 131, (36), 13054-13061.

7. Cuenya, B. R. Thin Solid Films 2010, 518, (12), 3127-3150.

8. Bullock, R. M. Science 2013, 342, (6162), 1054-1055.

Research Highlights: Fuel from Waste. The Microbial Community Approach

contributed by Priscilla Carrillo-Barragán

In a previous post I left you thinking of an ideal world, one where it was possible to fuel your car with ethanol (EtOH) that comes from organic waste, and not from crops that could have been eaten. Not coincidentally, my research focusses in trying to turn this possibility into a reality.

Today the transport sector worldwide is almost totally dependent on fossil fuels, being responsible for 60% of the world oil consumption and generating more than 70% of the CO and 19% of CO2 emissions (Balat, 2011).

The mitigation of these greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions is not an easy task, as it requires an integral –and ideally, global- strategy that considers transport technologies, service infrastructure and low-carbon fuels.

fig 1Different strategies to reduce the carbon intensity of transportation. Source: Sustainable Transport. NREL, 2015

Crop-based ethanol, which is produced by the U.S.A. and Brazil, provides a degree of independence from petroleum products in an economically “viable” way. But when considering its Life Cycle, it often fails to be a sustainable alternative to fossil fuels. This is due to the fact that its production can generate higher levels of greenhouse gases, can involve deforestation, damage of biodiversity, erosion and stress of soils, high level of water demand and contamination, competition with food production and rise in food prices, among others (Fargione et al.(2008); Goldemberg et al.(2008)). Extensive research is being carried out to overcome these drawbacks, but to date not a single feedstock or technology represents the panacea to this situation, and if the lesson with fossil fuels is to be learned, this issue should be addressed from a holistic, multi-disciplinary approach, leading to diversification.

Organic Municipal Solid Waste: the problem and the opportunity

According to the World Bank (Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata, 2012), the 1.3 billion tonnes of Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) produced annualy will double by 2025, of which around 30%-60% is organic matter. In countries with a strategy for waste management, these wastes will be diverted according to the waste hierarchy, but in the bast majority the organic fraction will be landfilled.

MSW is then an attractive feedstock for EtOH production due to its availability, high cellulosic content and particularly, to address the international concern to reduce the quantity of waste going to landfill.

fig 2Food waste can represent more than 50% of the organic francion of MSW in some countries (Hoornweg and Bhada-Tata, 2012). Image source: Lower Reule Bioenergy Ltd.

Sure, anaerobic digestion along with incineration are promising ways to treat the organic fraction of MSW at large, and undoubtedly these, together with solar and fuel cells, geothermical, eolic, tidal and nuclear technologies, will help to overcome the threat to energy security in the future. However, what will substitute the petrol and diesel required for the over 2 billion vehicles worldwide expected to be on the roads by 2050 (IEA, 2014), when most of them will continue to be powered by internal combustion engines?

Holtzapple et al. (1992) estimated that if all the lignocellulose in MSW were fermented, over 38 billion litters of EtOH would be produced in the US annualy, which would account for around 8% of the annual total demand!

Now that I have made my point, let’s face it: lignocellulosic biomass is hard to transform, and to affordably produce any sustainable fuel out of it, a complex treatment would be required, so…

How do I plan to do it?

The current approach to bioethanol production from lignocellulosic materials can be generalized as:



Diagram of ethanol production from lignocellulosic biomass. Each step takes place in a different reactor. The dotted line exemplifies Simultaneos Saccharification and Fermentation (SFF), where both steps ocurr in the same reactor.

Alternatively, in Consolidated Bioprocessing (CBP) four basic biochemical events take place simultaneously: Hydrolytic enzymes production, saccharification or substrate hydrolysis, hexose fermentation and pentose fermentation, all in the same reactor (Lynd, 1996).

An approach to achieve this is to engineer a “super bug” expanding the metabolic capabilities of well-known “industrially friendly” microorganisms (S. cerevisiae, Z. mobilis, or E. coli).

Or to try to imitate nature…

Using a microbial community where different species would perform the different steps required for EtOH production. Assuming that species integrate an overlapping set of relationships, spreading risks and benefits imposed by the environment, the system would be able to resist fluctuation as a community. Thus, the expensive drawbacks of the conventional process, as are enzyme production and product inhibition, the instability, narrow operational conditions, susceptibility to contamination and catabolite repression could be overcome (Zuroff and Curtis, 2012).

fig 4

As a biochemist-turned-microbiologist, this has been the first stage of my project, sampling different environments where lignocellulose degradation naturally occurs such as composting piles, where OMSW (what does this stand for? Organic Municipal Solid Waste?) is already being aerobically degraded, forest soil, where the leaves-mat is degraded by soil microorganisms, rumen and cattle dung, to obtain highly specialized cellulose degraders and anaerobic digestate for fermenters.

Taking compost and the less-attractive “very fresh” manure samples at Nafferton Park Farm, one of the farms managed by Newcastle University.

Imitate nature? Lignocellulose degradation, sure, but you may be wondering if EtOH is naturally produced at all.

The short answer is yes. EtOH is a fermentation product of numerous fungi, bacterial and even archaea species. But your suspicions are also right, the high efficiency of the interactions in a community allows the capture of most of the free energy available in the system, giving structure and stability (Zuroff and Curtis, 2012), which is good for the community, but represents one of the major challenges in EtOH production, as EtOH is produced in really small amounts –other more energetically favourable compounds like acetate are produced-, and whatever is excreted in the environment do not accumulate, as in certain conditions EtOH can be further oxidised by another community member to obtain energy, or simply not being produced, as result of inhibition.

The good news is that up to date all the environments sampled were effectively capable of lignocellulose transformation and EtOH production using an OMSW analogue as substrate. However, the yields obtained are still far from being ideal.

The chemist in me suggest that thermodynamic studies integrated with molecular biology tests could allow “simple”, but informed environment manipulation (pH, oxygen concentration, temperature) that can be used to direct the metabolism towards EtOH production in an efficient and robust way. Although this remains a challenge, the first results of my research keep me believing in the old Nature’s lesson: Union is strength.


  • Balat, M. (2011) ‘Production of bioethanol from lignocellulosic materials via the biochemical pathway: A review’, Energy Conversion and Management, 52(2), pp. 858-875.
  • Fargione, J., Hill, J., Tilman, D., Polasky, S. and Hawthorne, P. (2008) ‘Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt’, Science, 319(5867), pp. 1235-1238.
  • Goldemberg, J., Coelho, S.T. and Guardabassi, P. (2008) ‘The sustainability of ethanol production from sugarcane’, Energy Policy, 36(6), pp. 2086-2097.
  • Holtzapple, M., Lundeen, J., Sturgis, R., Lewis, J. and Dale, B. (1992) ‘Pretreatment of lignocellulosic municipal solid waste by ammonia fiber explosion (AFEX)’, Applied Biochemistry and Biotechnology, 34-35(1), pp. 5-21.
  • Hoornweg, D. and Bhada-Tata, P. (2012) What a waste: a global review of solid waste management (68135). Bank, T.W. [Online]. Available at: (Accessed: 30/07/2014).
  • IEA (2014) FAQs: Transport. Available at: (Accessed: 05/08/2014).
  • Zuroff, T. and Curtis, W. (2012) ‘Developing symbiotic consortia for lignocellulosic biofuel production’, Applied Microbiology and Biotechnology, 93(4), pp. 1423-1435.

Research Highlights: The Micro-World of Compost and How It Could Solve the Energy Crisis

contributed by Anna Alessi

Bruce Lab

The Bruce Lab studies microbial and plant biochemistry and environmental biotechnology. Image source

When people toss plant scraps onto a pile to decompose, they usually think of the resulting compost as a waste product that might produce fertilizer for their garden (at best). I think of it much more optimistically. As a postdoctoral research associate in the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) at the University of York, I study the use of compost as a fuel source. Our research focuses on various aspects of the industrial production of biofuel. Specifically, CNAP groups led by Professor Neil C. Bruce and Professor Simon McQueen-Mason are studying and modifying plant cell walls to increase their saccharification potential—the ease with which the sturdy cell walls can be broken down into fermentable sugars—as well as investigating new enzymes for pre-treatment of biomass.

Biofuels are conventionally produced from sugar-rich biomasses derived from corn (US market) or sugar cane (Brazil). Those two countries produce more biofuel than the rest of the world combined, accounting for 88% of annual bioethanol production1. However, the conventional first-generation feedstocks are important components of the food market, and their usage as fuel could potentially affect their price and availability. A feedstock with no other use would be preferable; hence, the lignocellulosic biomass derived from agricultural residues (straw, bagasse, husks, stover) or dedicated plant materials (willow, miscanthus) is becoming increasingly popular in the production of biofuel. The commercialization of such second-generation lignocellulosic biofuels involves extensive pre-treatment, including the application of harsh chemicals and enzymes. Many question the practicality and sustainability of second-generation biofuels, given the difficult processing and relatively high cost of production, but they are still an emerging technology, with many improvements to be made in the coming years. It is important to bear in mind the amount of lignocellulose that is produced annually—at 60 Gt/yr in terrestrial and 53 Gt/yr in marine ecosystems, it is the largest global sink for carbon2.

Biofuel generations

While first-generation biofuels are derived from sources that are usable as food, second-generation biofuels are produced from waste. Image source

As a trained microbiologist, I am interested in studying complex environmental systems that evolved to efficiently convert the resistant lignocellulose polymer to monomeric units. The resulting simple sugars are used by fermentative microorganisms to produce bioethanol. Various microbial communities have developed a wide range of mechanisms that successfully degrade woody material. Such microbes are abundant in the human gastrointestinal tract, helping us digest the fibrous food that we consume daily (especially important for vegetarians). They are also part of the microbiomes of animals, including ruminants and insects (e.g. termites). Microbial communities in soil, compost, freshwater and marine sediments allow recycling of the carbon locked in lignocellulose.

Plant cell walls can be broken down into sugar molecules to use as fuel. Source:

Plant cell walls can be broken down into sugar molecules to use as fuel.
Image source

My research interest lies mainly in identifying enzymes and accessory proteins which those microorganisms use for efficient lignocellulose degradation. Natural microbial decomposition is so efficient that a heap of organic plant material in a garden compost bin vanishes within months. Compost is a particularly interesting ecosystem, since the synergistic action of bacterial and fungal enzymes is needed to expose the sugars from the cellulose, hemicellulose, and pectins of plant cell wall and maintain the viability of the whole community.

Unfortunately, nature’s secret to lignocellulose degradation is not easy to unlock. Many of the highly potent bacteria and fungi are difficult to culture in laboratory conditions, making them very mysterious. However, development of advanced molecular biology techniques in addition to the rapidly lowering cost of sequencing makes culture-independent approaches a very attractive way of studying these complex communities.

In my project, we apply conventional microbiology techniques combined with cutting-edge sequencing methods to mine novel enzymes and accessory proteins produced by the compost microbiome. For instance, Ph.D. student Nicola Oates used multiple isolation assays to find enzymatically active bacteria and fungi, which she further identified by sequencing 16S and ITS phylogenetic markers. She is currently studying one of the fungal isolates in greater detail, since the enzymes that this fungus produces could potentially be applied in industry.

Nicola Oates

Nicola Oates is a Ph.D. student studying enzymatically active bacteria and fungi.

As I mentioned earlier, we also use advanced culture-independent ‘omics’ approaches in order to identify and then further characterise compost secretome (proteins excreted by compost microorganisms) and transcriptome. This enormous database will hopefully offer information on the proteins and genes expressed by the microbial community during lignocellulose degradation. We know that the microbes from compost attach very tightly to the plant material and form biofilm-like structures. This plant-microbe interaction must be the best way to facilitate the degradation of lignocellulose, which at the end of our experiment became powdered and structurally modified by the microbial activities.

All of this makes lignocellulolytic microorganisms from a wide range of environments a very attractive source of novel biocatalysts. Using next-generation sequencing, we are able to capture a glimpse of their community life. In addition to expanding our knowledge about these complex ecosystems, we will hopefully “adapt” their mechanisms of converting plant biomass to produce sustainable energy from waste.

  1. Renewables 2014 Global Status Report – Full Report
  2. Cox P., Betts R., Jones C., Spall S. and Todderdell I. 2000. Acceleration of global warming due to carbon cycle feedbacks in a coupled climate model. Nature. 408: 184-187.

Research Highlights: From Grad School to GlycoSurf

contributed by Cliff Coss

Over the years, I have been asked to write about every angle and facet of my startup company, GlycoSurf. I’ve written articles describing my involvement in the University of Arizona’s business development entity, Tech Launch Arizona, and my business development resources and lab space at our local incubator, Arizona Center for Innovation. I’ve had interviews from news stations and magazines about my technology and products, and have spoken about the entrepreneurial chemist-turned-businessman transition that is inevitable in these circumstances. But what’s interesting is how rarely I get asked to discuss the actual science; the part of the company I spent night and day on to optimize and “green” in order to make the company in the first place! Most discussions involve dollar signs, not environmental betterment. While this is not surprising to members of the business sector, I find myself taken aback by the fact that even the most moral- and passion-driven sustainable venture must survive financially in order to make a difference in the environment. So when Anna (one of our NESSE execs) asked me to discuss what really led to the formation and existence of GlycoSurf, I took advantage of the opportunity to ignore the dollar signs for a second and reminisce about the times when GlycoSurf was an idea and I was just trying to create a green material using green methodologies.

As I think back to those late nights in graduate school, it occurs to me that they were really the easy days of this long journey. Slaving away in hoods, over oil baths, round bottom flasks, rotovaps, microwaves, and coupling sugars to lipids never meant to be a company. It was originally just research for a degree. As encouraged here in NESSE, anyone can introduce green chemicals and practices in their research. By focusing on one change at a time, I was able to systematically green my research and my laboratory habits. It also helped that I was involved in an interdisciplinary project with the goal of synthesizing natural and bio-inspired glycolipid surfactants in a cost-effective, scalable, and environmentally-friendly fashion. It was during the early stages of this project that I became aware of the individual impact that my colleagues and I were making on the environment every day in lab. The fact that I contributed to the problem every time I showed up to work bothered me so much that I almost turned in the lab coat for a profession that didn’t make me feel guilty.

However, I chose to make some changes rather than throw in the towel. I eliminated dangerous procedures, harmful reagents, utilized catalysts, recycled solvents and reagents, and did it all while minimizing synthetic steps, eliminating work-ups, increasing yields, and lowering costs. While this was all a personal accomplishment that taught me alternative approaches to the “tried and true” practices of Organic Chemistry, this was all achieved at a scale that was easily handled and controlled.

What I discovered upon applying for a patent for our process and unique glycolipid surfactants was that optimization of large-scale production is no walk in the park. Never underestimate the statement made by the baker when she argued that the recipe for a dozen brownies cannot simple be multiplied by ten to produce ten dozen brownies. It becomes even worse when you are trying to scale and optimize a green process. This frustration can easily lead to the temptation to revert back to dangerous reagents and solvents in order to ease production becomes great as your company tries desperately to stay afloat. This hesitation to give in and except the procedures and techniques can only be described as the “dark side” of chemistry. Take it from someone that’s been through it. However, the easy route rarely gives you satisfaction or the feeling of absolute achievement; besides the fact that it goes against everything GlycoSurf stands for.

So, I pushed on in grad school, I pushed on through the early stages of GlycoSurf, and I continue to green procedures as GlycoSurf works to better the world one reaction and one glycolipid at a time. I’ve been working with these materials and these processes for nearly eight years now and it never gets easier. However, none of us got into this because we wanted something easy, right? It’s the challenge that drives us all to achieve something novel and impacting that keeps us focused. The key is to find the passion for what you are doing and the passion to make it better, no matter how difficult it may be. The next generation of scientists has arrived and it is up to us all replace the outdated practices and mindsets in order to convert green science into everyday science in academia, industry, and life.

GlycoSurf is a start-up producing high-purity, high-performance glycolipids for use in personal care products. It was founded in 2013 by three University of Arizona researchers. Find out more about GlycoSurf at