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South African student named among winning wood scientists in global competition

15th May 2019 BY: Tasneem Bulbulia
Creamer Media Reporter

The International Council of Forest and Paper Associations (ICFPA) on Tuesday announced the three global winners of its 2018/19 Blue Sky Young Researchers and Innovation Award. 

University of Pretoria (UP) Master's student Martin Wierzbicki was selected as a winner along with Elina Pääkkönen, from Finland, and Chinmay Satam, from the US.

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The winners made their official presentations in Vancouver, Canada, last week to industry executives at the ICFPA-hosted international CEO Roundtable, a biennial gathering of forestry and forest product companies.

The international competition – now in its second year – aims to attract submissions from aspiring scientists and young engineers who are developing novel solutions using wood fibre, process improvements or other products along the forestry, pulp and paper value chain.

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The research projects were judged against the theme of disruptive technologies that can revolutionise the future of forest-based products and services. The 2018/19 contest invited submissions in two particular areas – future generation forestry and innovation in the wood-based industry.

In a statement, the ICFPA said these issues were particularly topical as the world seeks greener, sustainable and renewable alternatives to packaging, fuel and materials.

WINNERS 
Wierzbicki, an MSc graduate from UP carried out research on genome-based biotechnology for designer wood.

His work focused on how the genetic makeup of trees can be changed to improve how wood reacts to industrial processing to maximise the extraction of biopolymers such as cellulose, lignin and xylan (a complex sugar found in plant cells).

Separating wood components into distinct processing streams as cleanly as possible allows each component to be used to make high-value products, but is hampered by the strong associations between wood biopolymers that make industrial breakdown difficult and costly.

“I have combined genetics, genomics, big data and wood chemistry analyses to build a gene network model. My model treats the tree as a ‘living biorefinery’, where we have control of how the wood is made,” he explained.

He expressed the hope that his work would help companies improve breeding techniques to reduce the loss of valuable components during wood processing and to introduce novel properties for advanced biomaterial production in trees.

Meanwhile, Pääkkönen, a senior scientist at VTT, the Technical Research Centre of Finland, explored the development of a viable earth-friendly packaging material from wood fibres using foam-assisted forming technology.

Satam, a PhD chemical engineering candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology, in the US, is developing multilayer films made from chitin nanofiber and cellulose nanocrystals for sustainable barrier applications to replace commonly used plastic barriers such as polyethylene terephthalate. 

EDITED BY: Chanel de Bruyn Creamer Media Senior Deputy Editor Online
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