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Recycling pineapple waste and converting invasive plants to biofuel

November 13, 2020

By Domiziana Francescon

Winning researchers behind green technologies awarded in the Elsevier Foundation-ISC3 Green & Sustainable Chemistry Challenge

Caption: First-prize winner Dr Carolina Parada with her students in their lab at the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima, Peru, where they are working on the pre-treatment of cocoa pods and pineapple leaves. Second-prize winner Clifford Okoth Owino, CEO and co-founder of Chemolex(opens in new tab/window), in front of an image from his project that involves converting hyacinth plants to affordable biofuel.

The fifth edition of the Elsevier Foundation-ISC3 Green & Sustainable Chemistry Challenge(opens in new tab/window) received 318 proposals from 69 countries. This week, the top awards were presented to researchers who created low-cost solutions to turn cocoa husks into furniture — and transform water hyacinth into biofuel.

Dr. Diana Carolina Parada Quinayá(opens in new tab/window), a Colombian chemical engineer and professor in the Department of Bioengineering and Chemical Engineering at the University of Engineering and Technology(opens in new tab/window) in Lima, Peru, was awarded a first prize of €50,000 to for her “Use of cocoa waste for green composites production in Pangoa” proposal.

Image of Diana Carolina Parada Quinayá

Diana Carolina Parada Quinayá

The second prize of €25,000 went to Clifford Okoth Owino of Nairobi, Kenya, CEO and co-founder of Chemolex(opens in new tab/window), for his project “Ecofuel/Chemolex.”

The five finalists(opens in new tab/window) presented their projects virtually at the 5th Green & Sustainable Chemistry Conference.

Furniture made of cocoa and pineapple?

Diana Parada and her team

In the image above: Prof. Diana Parada and her students from the University of Engineering and Technology in Lima visited Chanchamayo, a region of coffee producers in Peru. They met with farmers and agronomists and talked about their issues with coffee mucilage residues, which are highly pollutant and discharged in nearby rivers. The students are conducting research on alternatives for its use, possibly as biofertilizer. (Photo courtesy of Diana Parada)

San Martín de Pangoa is a large pineapple and cocoa producing area in central Peru. The problem is that cocoa and pineapple waste doesn’t have an adequate disposal process: for one ton of dry cocoa, 10 tons of waste (pods, mucilage and husks) are generated, which is usually buried or burned — and in some cases sprayed with chemicals to accelerate its degradation in the soil.

Dr Parada leads a team working with local communities to turn discarded cocoa pods and pineapple leaves into low-cost raw material for the furniture industry, helping reduce deforestation that has consumed more than 140,000 hectares a year (about 345,947 acres) of the Peruvian Amazon.

The team is looking at a 100 percent sustainable process from start to finish: by taking advantage of the high solar radiation of the Peruvian jungle, they will be able to use greenhouses to sustainably dry the waste, which is then mixed with natural castor oil and oil palm resin.

Dr Parada strongly believes in the socioeconomic value of the project. In Peru, cocoa production is helping about 90,000 farming families to emerge from poverty: in addition to the sale of cocoa beans and pineapple fruit, she explained, producers will have an additional income for the sale of the

remaining waste. In addition, schools and health facilities in the community could benefit from low-cost furtiture that is locally produced.

She said the challenge prize will help her and her students make this project a reality:

It is a great opportunity to apply scientific knowledge and contribute to the solution of real environmental problems in the country. At UTEC, university students are constantly encouraged to participate in projects with social and environmental impact, which will also be an opportunity to involve them in their development.

Winning the award is also a great commitment: we will develop the project in the best way. It makes us happy to be able to contribute to the improvement of conditions in Amazonian communities.

Turning invasive plants into clean biofuel

people from Kenya going through a river filled with water hyacinth

Invasive water hyacinth plants have formed a dense mat on the surface of Lake Victoria in Kenya, making it hard to navigate. (Photo by Clifford Okoth Owino)

Across the globe in Nairobi, Kenya, Clifford Okoth Owino and CMO Robert Achoge met in the office of Chemolex(opens in new tab/window) – a social start-up using innovative advanced bio-conversion technology to produce affordable multi-purpose biofuel from the invasive water hyacinth plant.

Having witnessed first-hand how the invasive water hyacinth plants have formed a dense mat on the surface of Lake Victoria – resulting into serious economic, health and environmental issues for the 10 million people who depend on the lake for their livelihood – Clifford and his team set out to change the story.

Through harvesting, drying and bio-fermentation, Chemolex has been able to produce clean and affordable biofuel. The process removes 300 tons of water hyacinth from Lake Victoria annually, converting up to 90 percent into biofuel and while helping to counter water loss and remove breeding sites for malaria-carrying mosquitoes. The Chemolex multipurpose biofuel is 60 percent more affordable than traditional energy sources such as kerosene, charcoal and firewood – which not only are inefficient but, as they are still used by 85 percent of rural households(opens in new tab/window) in Kenya, have also resulted in massive deforestation.

Biofuel made from hyacinth plant

Chemolex produces affordable biofuel from the hyacinth plant. (Photo by Clifford Okoth Owino)

“I love the fact that I am able to utilize my knowledge of industrial chemistry to create a significant change in my community,” said Owino in his award presentation. “Having been brought up in a riparian community that depends entirely on fishing, my deepest motivation and passion comes from my ability to apply green chemistry principles to sustainably control the invasion of the lake by the water hyacinth plant.”

In talking about next steps, he noted how his team plans to scale up production to 1,000 liters a day and develop 300 biofuel-operated cooking jikos (a typically charcoal-burning stove(opens in new tab/window)) to provide heating energy for off-grid households. Afterwards, he said:

The prize has given us a huge sense of hope and motivation. My hope for the future of sustainable chemistry is that it will enable sustainable solutions to challenges such as energy poverty, climate change and environmental degradation. It is my hope that we will be able to rethink our priorities, drive environmental awareness and adopt cleaner production technologies with zero environmental footprints.

With just 10 years left to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals(opens in new tab/window), the need for sustainable ideas to tackle global issues is more pressing than ever, and chemistry can play a key role in finding practical solutions to urgent challenges. To stimulate innovative chemistry research, the Elsevier Foundation(opens in new tab/window) has joined forces with Elsevier’s chemistry journals team and the International Sustainable Chemistry Collaborative Centre (ISC3)(opens in new tab/window) to run the Elsevier Foundation-ISC3 Green & Sustainable Chemistry Challenge(opens in new tab/window).

ISC3 joins the partnership by contributing new expertise, networks and a third prize for entrepreneurial spirit of €25,000, which was awarded this year to Le Qara(opens in new tab/window), a Peruvian zero-waste company focusing on leather made from microorganisms. The Leather-like biotextile is biodegradable, and the residues can be used as a liquid compost.

Elsevier's new report – The Power of Data to Advance the SDGs(opens in new tab/window) – presents unique insights and initiatives, many developed together with partners, to map the state of research for each of the UN’s sustainable development goals.

Power of data to advance SDGs report


Portrait photo of Domiziana Francescon


Domiziana Francescon

Partnerships Manager