Innovation That Matters

How women in science are delivering a sustainable future

Sustainable Source

To celebrate the International Day of Women and Girls in Science, discover some of the most exciting sustainable innovations from female scientists

Today, only one-third of all the world’s researchers are female. And the proportion of women in some of the most cutting-edge fields – such as artificial intelligence, software development, and data science – is even lower.

Women’s access to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) varies between regions. But even if a woman does break into one of these traditionally male-dominated fields, they still face challenges not encountered by their male counterparts. For example, one study found that female researchers receive smaller grants than their male peers.

To tackle the gender gap in the sciences, in 2015 the UN adopted The International Day of Women and Girls in Science. Celebrated on February 11th each year, this day of awareness promotes equal access to STEM for women and girls. This year’s theme places a spotlight on the role of women in delivering the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Empowering female scientists, engineers, and software developers is not just a matter of social equality – increasing the number of women in science builds the global skillset for tackling the challenges we will face over the next century. For example, UN Climate Change argues that, “With women and girls empowered to take on leadership roles and contribute to climate mitigation and adaptation, it creates opportunities for them to redefine and transform our economies and societies.”

Every week at Springwise we see female scientists making an invaluable contribution to climate action and the SDGs. Here are some of the amazing things women in science have achieved in recent months.

Photo source: Unsplash/Chula Faculty of Science

Clean water

Using magnetism, a team of researchers, led by Professor Nicky Eshtiaghi from the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, has developed a quick way of cleaning microplastics from large volumes of water. The researchers use an iron-based adsorbent powder specifically designed to attract microplastics and other particles. Once the pollutants are adsorbed, this powder can be removed from the water using a magnet. The researchers found that their powder and magnet combination can remove microplastics 1,000 times smaller than those that can be cleared by current wastewater treatment processes. 

Meanwhile, in Thailand, Dr Onruthai Pinyakong, an associate professor at Chulalongkorn University, has supervised research into the use of bacteria to clean up a different pollutant: oil. These microbes break down hydrocarbons, making it easier to remove the oil from the environment. And Dr Onruthai discovered that Thailand’s seas provide a good source of oil-eating microorganisms.

Photo source: Laurie Lapworth for the University of BathThe University of Queensland

Health and wellbeing

Today, most vaccines need to be stored at very specific low or ultra-low temperatures, which complicates vaccine distribution. Now, however, researchers led by Dr Asel Sartbaeva from the University of Bath have developed a technology that makes biopharmaceuticals safe and stable at room temperatures. The technology uses inert silica to encapsulate the active ingredients in a protective ‘cage’. This keeps the biological material protected from any variations in outside temperature or humidity. When the vaccine is ready to be administered, the silica cage cracks open and falls away, leaving the active ingredient in its pure and fully functional form.

Elsewhere, Dr Maggy Lord from the University of Queensland has led a team that has developed a novel test for malaria. This method uses a device that shines a harmless beam of infrared light onto a person’s ear or finger for five to ten seconds. The resulting infrared signature is then processed by a computer algorithm to reveal the presence (or not) of the disease. Because the device can be operated by a smartphone, it is both portable and cheap.

Photo source: Unsplash/VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland

Food and drink

Egg whites are an important ingredient in the food industry, and, in 2020, around 1.6 million tonnes of egg whites were used commercially. All these eggs have a significant environmental impact, for which University of Helsinki researchers, led by Doctoral Researcher Natasha Järviö, have come up with a potential solution. The team produced ovalbumin – the protein found in egg whites – without using any animals. The gene carrying the blueprints for ovalbumin was inserted by the researchers into the fungus Trichoderma reesei, which then produced and secreted the protein.

In the US, a team led by doctoral student Cydney Jackson has found a way to make apple waste useful, by using it to improve the health of chickens. The researchers injected juice, pomace, and pulp from Empire apples into the amniotic fluid of chicken eggs before they hatched. This, they found, improved the overall health of chickens, boosted microbial populations in the birds’ large intestines, and supported the growth of good gut bacteria.

Photo source: The University of Michigan/Unsplash

Plastic recycling

PVC, or polyvinyl chloride, is a common but little-recycled plastic. This is because the material tends to leach a substance called plasticiser when heated, which can then enter other plastics, rendering them unusable. Hydrochloric acid also leaches out of heated PVC, corroding recycling equipment and injuring workers. Now, however, a research team led by Professor Anne McNeil and Dr Danielle Fagnani from the University of Michigan has discovered a way to recycle PVC into usable material using electrochemistry. This approach reduces the risks associated with recycling PVC via traditional methods.

A broader problem with plastic recycling is the fact that conventional recycling methods only result in low-value plastic molecules, providing little incentive to recycle. Now, however, a project co-led by Susannah Scott, Professor and Chair of Sustainable Catalytic Processing at UC Santa Barbara, has discovered a way to upcycle polyethylene, used in applications such as packaging and bottles, into more valuable polypropylene, which can be used in car parts and Tupperware. The researchers believe that this could provide a crucial incentive for companies to recycle their plastic waste, as they would be able to sell it on at a higher price.

Words: Matthew Hempstead

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