Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies

Scientists and engineers working together for a sustainable future

Tagged: Cellulose

Brazilian Diaries: Visit to University of Campinas

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📥  Internships & visits

The following blog is contributed by Jamie Courtenay of the '14 Cohort. 


Today marks the start of the last week of my two month visit to Brazil. I head out early in the morning to the University of Campinas (UNICAMP), where I have been staying for the majority of my time here. I know I have to write my blog today so I only have the short 10 minute walk to construct a whimsical story for you all to enjoy. I arrive at UNICAMP just as it is beginning to wake up; there is reassuring stillness about the place, students beginning to arrive and start their day. I walk across the green campus to a small café near the Chemistry Department. The sun is already high in the sky but hasn’t reached its full power yet, so the temperature is very pleasant.

“Café por favor” I say to the café owner, one of the few Portuguese phrases I have tried to learn, and eagerly await enjoying my cup of strong Brazilian coffee to help wake myself up (it’s really good, I’m actually a bit concerned I might not make it through customs with the amount of coffee beans I’ve got in my suitcase). I take a long draw on the crema of my coffee, and with the hubbub of the Uni growing start to reflect on my time here in Brazil (if you’re still with me this far you’re doing well).

Two months earlier I set off from the UK to start my placement in Brazil as part of the Global Innovation Initiative (GII) collaboration. This transatlantic collaboration brings together Ohio State University (USA), the University of Sao Paulo and UNICAMP (Brazil) and University of Bath (UK). The purpose of my placement was threefold: to take part in the 3rd GII workshop, to spend some time with Professor Munir Skaf at UNICAMP learning how to use computational modelling techniques and to use facilities at the Brazilian Nanotechnology National Laboratory (LNNano).

Jamie + Coco

Arriving at Maresias for our workshop after a long journey, time for coconut based refreshment

To kick things off was the 3rd GII workshop which took place in the picturesque beach town of Maresias. Here I was also joined by some fellow PhD students and academics from the CSCT at Bath. The aim of this workshop was for students and academics to present their current research within the project and discuss the future of the collaboration which included planning potential follow-on grants. On the first day of the workshop I presented my research on “modified cellulose scaffolds for tissue engineering” to the attendees. This was a new experience for me as I hadn’t presented my research or given a talk outside the University of Bath before, let alone to such prominent academics in the audience. I felt very nervous; my palms were sweaty, knees weak and arms were heavy, could this feeling be the ill effects of yesterday’s squid spaghetti? However, my nerves were settled and I felt calm and ready when it soon became evident that everyone was really engaged with each other’s research. This created a really nice and friendly atmosphere to work in. It was a great experience working with and getting to know academics and students from across the pond. I particularly enjoyed taking part in the grant planning sessions; I found these an interesting insight into the world of academia.

Jamie + presentation

Presenting my research at the GII workshop and a group photo

After the week’s workshop, Marcus Johns and I ventured off for the weekend to the nearby island of Ilhebela – literally meaning a “Beautiful island”. Lured by the prospect of sunning ourselves on golden sand we set off to find the famous Bonete beach. However, standing between us was a “challenging” 10 mile trek through dense tropical jungle with only an overgrown dirt path to guide us.

Jamie + Walk

At the beginning of our journey through the jungle of Ilhabela, before the rain came

Now of course hindsight is a wonderful thing… but setting off on a 6 hour walk at 3 o’clock in the afternoon with only one head torch between you and no map is probably not the best idea (I dread to think what my old scout leader would think of me). Within the hour the heavens had opened releasing a torrent of blood warm rain from the skies and the light was fading fast – this was clearly going to be one of those experiences “good for the character”. Despite slipping over numerous numbers of times and managing to cross rickety rope bridges over rivers and the odd waterfall we finally made it to the beach. By this time, it was completely dark apart from fireflies luminescing in the trees.  We would have to wait until morning for its true identify to reveal itself to us.

Jamie + beach

Waking up to the beautiful view of Bonete beach

Morning came and the sun shone high and the view was truly fantastic. Luckily, Marcus brought his camera with him so we could capture what we saw. Emerging from the dense green jungle forest we could see the pristine golden sands of Bonete beach before us. Not bad, I thought to myself, not bad at all. However, before long it soon become apparent we were not the only ones enjoying breakfast on the beach. “Borrachudos”, which I think translates as nasty little bloodsuckers had also woken up from the sands and were going to town on our legs. One better versed in Borrachudos-ian would probably have heard them roar “looks like meat’s back on the menu boys!” in anticipation upon sighting our exposed legs. Fortunately for us this was the one thing we were prepared for and armed with enough DEET to drop a cave troll we were able to enjoy our short stay in paradise in relative peace.

For the second part of my placement I was based at UNICAMP in Professor Munir Skaf’s research group. Here I was to learn how to use computational modelling to help understand certain interesting properties of cellulose structures, such as how water molecules interact with the cellulose surface. Cellulose is a natural polymer derived from plant biomass and I am currently developing new tissue scaffold materials from it to use in biomedical engineering. To do this I chemically modify the cellulose surface in order to promote the attachment of cells onto it. As an experimental chemist, using computational modelling was a new technique for me to learn. Munir and his group were very welcoming and helpful in guiding me through the work. Despite in no way being able to call myself an expert it was still very insightful to see the potential this different approach could offer my research.

The final part of my stay was at the Brazilian Nanotechnology National Laboratory (LNNano). Here I was to characterise my cellulose scaffolds using their electric force microscopy and x-ray tomography instruments. Again, these were two new techniques for me to learn but I really enjoyed getting to grips with them. This was a great facility and I felt very lucky to have the opportunity to use it. The instrument scientists I worked with were always more than happy to discuss my findings and help me answer some key questions in my PhD.

Jamie + instruments

Using electric force microscopy to characterise cellulose films at LNNano

I take the last sip of my coffee, my time in Brazil is ending. I have truly enjoyed my stay in this wonderful country and would like to thank the GII grant and EPSRC for giving me the opportunity to do so. If an opportunity like this arises in the future for anyone I would strongly recommend seizing it. I now look forward to seeing my family and friends back in the UK and enjoying a nice cup of English tea.


Jamie is currently working on his PhD project: 'Decorated cellulose surfaces – opportunities for novel, sustainable ingredients for formulated products and tissue engineering scaffolds' with Dr Janet Scott, Professor Karen Edler and Dr Ram Sharma.

Biomaterials with University of São Paulo in Brazil

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📥  Internships & visits

Our third year CSCT student Marcus Johns undertook a three month internship at University of São Paulo, one of our partners in Brazil. Here’s what he had to say about his experience:

Improving the bio-functionality of cellulose in order to use it as a scaffold for human tissue growth is a challenge. Enough of a challenge that it’s the primary focus of my PhD. So far I’ve been developing materials based on blends of cellulose and chitosan – which is bio-functional but lacks tensile strength – and have had mixed success with them, so any opportunity to try an alternative method was more than welcome.

DSCF1622Fortunately one arose via our Global Innovation Initiative project “Transatlantic discovery, characterisation and application of enzymes for the recycling of polymers and composites”; a current collaboration between the University of Bath; the University of São Paulo, and Ohio State University. Researchers under Professor Igor Polikarpov at USP had reported that they had managed to isolate the section of protein that was responsible for allowing a particular enzyme to attach to cellulose, and had modified it to allow other chemicals to be cross-linked to it. If a bio-functional chemical – such as a peptide – could be cross-linked to this protein, it would potentially be possible to improve the bio-functionality of my cellulose scaffolds once the compound had been adsorbed onto their surface. My three month internship was then organised.

Going to a country where you don’t speak the language – and didn’t learn one with a similar root at school – can be daunting, particularly when you don’t start learning the language till a month before you go. From experience, I strongly recommend learning at least a series of basic sentences before anyone attempts this as it saves many minutes of confused looks and expansive hand-gestures used to be understood. My second piece of advice is to never underestimate the size of a country – the University of São Paulo has a number of campuses and the one that I was to work at was located in São Carlos, a three and half hour drive from São Paulo. Many of my friends were expecting me to spend a fair amount of time on a beach, unfortunately this wasn’t realised as the nearest beach was five hours away by car.

However, I managed to overcome these issues and spent a productive three months in Brazil. The facilities in the laboratory were very impressive – six HPLCs for a lab of less than twenty students with three dedicated support staff – and it was clear that São Paulo state’s commitment of 13 % of its GDP to higher education and research and development was being well spent. I also was able to visit the National Centre for Research in Energy and Materials in Campinas for a week, with time spent at the Brazilian Nanotechnology National Laboratory using their scanning electron microscope and atomic force microscopy facilities. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to definitively prove that the compound could improve cell attachment and growth on cellulose, but I did obtain a number of novel results that have raised further questions and hopefully set-up further collaborations for the future.

I also managed to do a little travelling whilst I was out there, including visiting São Paulo during Carnival. I didn’t notice the water shortages that have been prevalent in the news recently whilst I was there, but a trip to Furnas – which is next to one of the main reservoirs for the region of São Paulo – proved more eye-opening. To see the extent by which the water-level has dropped in the reservoir in the last three years was shocking. Many house-owners on the shore now have two boathouses – one where the water-level used to be and one where the water-level now is – and tree-tops can be seen sticking out of the water. It brought home the challenges associated with climate change – which also includes the recent increase in dengue cases in the region due to people storing rain water in open containers, the perfect places for mosquitos to breed – and why the research being carried out at the centre and our public engagement activities are so important. Overall, I had a great time in Brazil and would recommend it to anyone thinking of going there.

Marcus is working towards his PhD in the CSCT and is supervised by Dr Ram Sharma and Dr Janet Scott at University of Bath and Dr Sameer Rahatekar at University of Bristol.