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Professor Steven Howdle and Dr Yonas Chebude

University of Nottingham and Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia

New Bioplastics from African Iron Weed: A supercritical approach

Applying local skills to international collaboration

The Royal Society – Royal Society of Chemistry International Exchanges Award is providing £12,000 of support to an industry and environmentally focused collaboration between Professor Steven Howdle of the University of Nottingham and Dr Yonas Chebude of Addis Ababa University. Introductions and an exchange of ideas at an international conference formed the basis of the collaboration between Professor Howdle’s and Dr Chebude’s research groups. Their project concentrates on extracting, purifying and converting oils present in African Ironweed into environmentally sustainable biopolymers with potential uses in the pharmaceutical industry and the production of plastics. 

‘We have the resources but we do not have the facilities to implement the ideas. That was the challenge,’ says Dr Chebude. Ironweed is a prolifically growing natural plant in Ethiopia and the broader sub-Saharan regions. In Addis, recent work pioneered by Dr Yonas Chibude had demonstrated that the weed contains a significant level of vernonia oil which can be treated and turned into vernolic acid – a potentially very valuable natural resource. However, there were significant hurdles to overcome: the yield of vernolic acid from vernonia oil is very low. In Nottingham, Steve Howdle was working on a similar molecule that is extracted from Birch bark, utilising supercritical carbon dioxide, a very gentle and natural extraction methodology. The International Exchanges Award has enabled the complementary expertise of these two groups to come together and apply similar methodologies to the vernolic acid to create a completely new range of bioderived plastics. The funding is enabling members of each group to visit their counterpart institution as well as conduct joint work at unique facilities at Bangor University. Without such an exchange of skills and expertise the project would not be viable. Such is the success of the working relationship between the two research groups, further collaborations between groups in the Schools of Chemistry at the two universities have begun to form, inspired by the achievements of Professor Howdle and Dr Chebude.

In addition to Professor Howdle’s and Dr Chebude’s input, PhD students from both groups have taken advantage of the learning opportunities available within each country. Bilateral visits between Nottingham and Addis Ababa have equipped the PhD students with the knowledge and skills necessary to sustain the partnership long after the completion of the award. Beyond the obvious academic benefits, these exchanges also provide the recipients and their teams with an international perspective on challenges they had not previously considered.

‘My most important advice to academics is to get rid of the fear of rejection, don’t be afraid of approaching UK scientists or other international collaborators.’ Dr Chebude cites his international exchange with increasing his confidence in an academic and research environment due to both the prestige of the award and the potential impact his research will have on a wide selection of industries. Dr Chebude took advantage of networking opportunities on advice from colleagues at his university, but also suggests that prospective applicants to international exchange programmes should investigate whether pre-existing collaborations exist between their universities and other organisations. These networks give applicants guidance on who to approach in order to develop a research collaboration. In the current world of research, an international outlook is essential for scientists to remain competitive in their field by tackling problems in novel and exciting ways.

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