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Saving the world with science

Discover 8 mind-blowing ways we are solving some of today’s biggest problems.

It’s time for change. That was the resolve of UN leaders when they agreed to 17 Global Goals for a better world by 2030. These aims include living sustainably, ensuring clean water for all, conserving life on land and beneath the waves – and on campus, crucial work is being done to tackle some of these pressing issues. Here are just a few of the innovative ways our scientists, engineers and mathematicians are striving to improve people’s lives, and safeguard the planet for future generations.

Turning plants into plastic

Saving the world with science. Illustration by John Devolle
Saving the world with science. Illustration by John Devolle

“The world must act now to save our seas,” warns Sir David Attenborough. The naturalist, broadcaster and honorary graduate exposed the devastating effects of plastic on marine life in BBC’s Blue Planet II. “For years we thought the oceans were so vast and the inhabitants so infinitely numerous that nothing we could do could have an effect upon them,” he says. “But now we know that was wrong.”

This year, the government issued a UK-wide ban on one source of plastic pollution – microbeads – found in cosmetic products. It’s estimated that a single shower can result in 100,000 of these tiny spheres washed into the ocean, where they are ingested by birds, fish and other marine life. The industry must clean up its act, and scientists at Bath have found an ocean-friendly alternative to these polluting plastics. They have developed biodegradable beads made from cellulose – a material that forms the tough fibres found in plants. Our scientists dissolve the cellulose and reform it into tiny beads that remain stable in a body wash, but can also be broken down in the sewage treatment works.

Professor Janet Scott from our Department of Chemistry and part of our Centre for Sustainable Chemical Technologies (CSCT) says: “Microbeads used in the cosmetics industry have previously been made from polymers that are derived from oil and take hundreds of years to break down in the environment. These are now to be banned, but we’ve developed a way of making microbeads from a renewable source, cellulose, which biodegrades into harmless sugars.” In the future, it’s hoped that these will replace harmful microbeads, helping to reduce the flow of plastic in our blue planet.

Tapping rain to quench thirst

Of all the water on Earth, less than one per cent is drinkable, and Mexico City’s parched population is facing a crisis. Poor infrastructure has led to waste water contamination, and climate change has made matters worse by causing drought and increasing demand.

Jon Chouler from our Department of Chemical Engineering is working towards a solution. Having spent six months in Mexico City with the charity Engineers Without Borders UK, Jon has seen first-hand the hardship that citizens face. “It’s eye-opening that so many homes don’t have access to water,” he says. “Sometimes the taps run once a week, sometimes once a month – people live in uncertainty. And when water flows, it’s unclean and muddy.” Instead, many depend on pipas – water trucks that command high costs for an irregular supply. However, if disinfected and stored correctly, simple rainwater could address this problem. Jon is working with Isla Urbana, a non-profit organisation that’s designing and installing rainwater harvesting systems in poor neighbourhoods. The device collects rain from the roof and uses a series of filters to remove debris before being disinfected by a chlorinator.

Jon is developing a chlorinator that’s more accessible, reliable and easier to use than the existing model. “Trying to source specific materials for my work is certainly a challenge, especially with the language barrier,” he says. “But it’s incredibly rewarding. The people I’ve met have been so happy and thankful for the rainwater harvesting systems – they no longer have to walk long distances or wait in line for water from pipas. They feel better knowing that when the taps don’t run, they have a water store to use.” The improved chlorinator is not commercially ready, but by the time Jon returns to Bath he believes he’ll have a clear set of recommendations on which to build.

Saving lives with paper

Paper with the power to test for polluted water could save lives in poor areas of the world. That’s the latest revolutionary development from our CSCT and the Water Innovation & Research Centre. Inspired by the simplicity of litmus paper – a chemistry class favourite – the technology is essentially a microbial fuel cell (MFC) fitted to a piece of paper. An MFC uses bacteria that produce electrons as they break down food, which in turn generates an electric signal. However, toxic water will harm the bacteria, so they’ll produce fewer electrons and the current will drop, sending a warning message that the water is unsafe to drink. As dirty water kills a child every two minutes, this work is vital.

“This research will especially benefit areas where access to even basic analytic tools is prohibitive,” says Dr Mirella Di Lorenzo, lead author and Senior Lecturer in the Department of Chemical Engineering. “The device is a small step in helping the world realise the United Nations’ call to ensure access to safe drinking water and sanitation as a human right.”

Fighting cancer with landmine research

Hidden landmines and cancerous tumours – two seemingly unrelated problems that have one common challenge. Both can only be detected with extremely accurate imaging techniques. That’s what our Engineering Tomography Lab (ETL), led by Professor Manuchehr Soleimani, is helping to develop. This life-saving research began in 2015 with funding from footballing legend and honorary graduate Sir Bobby Charlton CBE and his charity Find A Better Way. Its aim: to clear the 110 million active landmines in place across the globe.

Since then, the team has produced a smart camera that uses copper electrodes to scan the ground to determine how insulating it is. As modern-day landmines are made of plastic – a good insulator – they can be detected. To avoid confusion with buried plastic rubbish, the researchers have used mathematical algorithms to convert the electrical signal into a 3D image. This technology is now being developed for use in the field.

But that’s not the only way mathematics can save lives. The ETL has also been working with CERN – the world’s largest particle physics laboratory – to create medical imaging software with the potential to significantly improve the treatment of cancer patients. Currently, patients have a scan to find out whether a tumour is present, usually in a CT scanner. An X-Ray source rotates around the body, creating multiple images from different angles that are assembled into one 3D image using mathematics.

The new TIGRE software can produce images faster and at a lower radiation dose than before. Importantly, it can account for movement, so when a patient is having a scan for lung cancer, the images are clearer, enabling more accurate treatment.

Making fake poo to improve sanitation

“Developing and testing batches of fake poo isn’t something many people can say they do as part of their day job,” admits postgraduate researcher Naomi Deering. “At times it may not be pleasant but the potential impact of this project makes this work so worthwhile.” Naomi is helping to find ways of treating human waste – an issue that affects 2.7 billion people without access to a flushing toilet – and this lab-created poo enables the team to carry out experiments safely.

In places where basic sewerage and waste water treatment are non-existent, drying beds could be the answer. Natural sunlight and heat dries out the sludge, and as it loses water, the temperature rises, killing off parasite eggs and pathogens such as E.coli and Salmonella and reducing the risks of illness and death. Eventually, the sludge can be composted for use in agriculture.

To better understand the drying process, the team is testing the sludge in drying beds exposed to a variety of humidity, temperature and solar radiation conditions. The aim is to take this research from the laboratory to the lavatory, providing best-practice guidelines that can be used in a range of developing countries and climates.

Printing microscopes to detect disease

3D printing is revolutionising medicine – not only in the production of prosthetics and implants, but also medical equipment. Dr Richard Bowman from the Department of Physics is working with the University of Cambridge and Tanzanian STICLab to create low-cost devices for disease diagnosis and scientific research. The project is made possible by the Global Challenges Research Fund, which supports studies that address issues affecting developing countries.

They have developed a microscope made from mass-produced lenses and a 3D-printed plastic frame costing just £30, paired with a Raspberry Pi mini-computer. Optical microscopes are normally prohibitively expensive, but can be used to identify deadly parasites, such as malaria, in blood and water samples. The designs are freely available online so local entrepreneurs can recreate this equipment in some of the poorest areas of the world.

Keeping vaccines safe

While taking her daughter for routine jabs, Dr Asel Sartbaeva noticed the vaccines were kept refrigerated, which keeps them from breaking down and becoming unusable. She was inspired to find a way of storing vaccines that didn’t rely on refrigeration, which is not only expensive, but also a major logistical problem when delivering vaccines to remote areas of the world.

She and her research group have created a technique which keeps vaccines intact up to 100°C by locking them in microscopic silica cages. Silica – the main component of sand – is non-toxic, inert and can be removed chemically. This discovery has the potential to save millions of lives. Asel, originally supported by a donation from graduate Tom Ford, and now a Royal Society University Research Fellow, was recognised for her outstanding work at the WISE Awards for women in STEM in 2017.

Creating drinks bottles from sugar and fizz

Scientists from our CSCT have found a way to make polycarbonate plastics from sugars and carbon dioxide. In the future, these could replace unsustainable plastics made from crude oil. This new type of plastics is biodegradable and biocompatible. As some of the carbohydrates (sugars) that can be used are the ones found in our DNA, they could eventually be used for medical implants, or even to support the artificial growth of replacement organs for transplant. “It’s early days, but the future looks promising,” says Dr Antoine Buchard, Royal Society University Research Fellow. “This could be the work of a lifetime, but if it can one day help society, it’s worth it.”

This article was written by Jodie Tyley and appears in BA2, the University of Bath's magazine for alumni and friends.