'Eureka moment' as scientists unveil plastic alternative made from seaweed

Mark Dorris and Dominic O'Rourke said the material could replace synthetic plastics in laundry products.

Edinburgh Napier University researchers launch biodegradable seaweed alternative to plastic Seaweed Enterprises via Supplied

Two researchers from Edinburgh Napier University say they have had a “eureka moment” after launching a biodegradable seaweed alternative to plastic.

Mark Dorris and Dominic O’Rourke founded company Mercel after discovering they could make a nanomaterial from brown seaweed extract – with zero waste.

They made the discovery during research with the Advanced Materials group in Edinburgh Napier’s School of Computing, Engineering and the Built Environment.

Testing on sargassum seaweed – which washes ashore in huge quantities from the Atlantic Ocean – the firm have started testing it as a replacement for synthetic plastics in a range of practical uses, including as a binder for laundry products, a waterproof coating and a delivery system for medical ingredients.

The firm has been testing on sargassum seaweed.Seaweed Enterprises via Supplied

Mark Dorris, Mercel founder and chief technical officer, said: “There are very few ‘eureka’ moments in science – but this was one of them.

“Coming from industry previously, we had no connections, no money, and no experience of seaweed.

“At many points we were hanging on by our fingertips. We drunk the last chance saloon dry. We had job offers but decided ‘we can’t let this go’.

“We immediately saw the potential of using brown seaweed cellulose from existing seaweed processing to produce nanocellulose.

“The seaweed is typically harvested for alginate, which is used mostly as a food thickener, and the cellulose left behind was historically viewed as a waste product.

“We’re aiming this at hidden plastics, binders, thickeners: many of the chemical ingredients you read on the back of a bottle and wonder what they are. They’re hard to replace, but that’s what this can do.

“Regulation on synthetic chemicals is increasingly being tightened, so we are hoping to create something future-proof – as it is completely natural, sustainable, and non-animal in its origin.

“We want it to be the best choice rather than just being the green option.”

Having appointed Alastair Kennedy as chief commercial officer, the company is now planning to set up a base in Fife to develop the product’s uses and license it for wider production.

Mercel is now working with nine companies on 13 different projects to explore real-world applications.

Fiona Mason, head of business engagement and IP commercialisation at Edinburgh Napier University, said: “The climate crisis demands urgent action, and Edinburgh Napier University is committed to playing a role in finding solutions.

“The creation of Mercel demonstrates our dedication to translating cutting-edge research into real-world applications that can make a tangible difference.

“Mercel’s success is a source of great pride for us, and we commend the devoted research team behind it.

“Their expertise, passion, and commitment, supported by our skilled Business Engagement and IP team from the Research Innovation and Enterprise Office, have been instrumental in making this happen.”

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