We Hear From Four Notts Minds Who Are Helping to Protect Our Planet

Photos: Hannah Cattell, William Morris and Andy Peat
Interview: Adam Pickering
Thursday 17 February 2022
reading time: min, words

With our universities and businesses starting to come up with innovative and exciting methods for protecting our planet, Nottingham now finds itself at the forefront of the fight against climate change. We hear from four local minds who are helping to lead this fight…


My lab group focuses on cross-breeding traditional wheat crops with its wild relatives to introduce more varied genes into the populations that we commonly use for farming, which can then be screened for useful traits such as higher nutrient content or disease resistance. These wild relatives often just look like weeds, but contain loads of useful genes! 

Wheat was hybridised from three plants, 10,000 years ago, so we’re speeding up the natural process of combining chromosomes from different plants with the different characteristics we want to reproduce, and then seeing what effect that has on the new variety. A little known fact - whereas we only have one set of chromosomes, wheat actually has three. 

The research all ties very much into climate change, because changes in the climate mean we need more drought and heat resistant crops, and with changes in the weather comes a growing risk from pests and diseases. Fungal pathogens, for example, like the kind of hot, humid weather that we’re likely to experience more of in the near future. The work we do as individuals might seem insignificant to outsiders, but it’s a big collective effort focused on incremental gains - each tiny step gets us a little closer to avoiding the impending doom of global food insecurity.


I'm working with a microbe which can eat carbon dioxide (CO2) - a greenhouse gas - and then it transforms that CO2 into valuable products. This could be useful chemicals, typically ethanol, or you can turn it into biomass for fish feed, which means we don’t have to feed farmed fish with other wild fish, which is the norm, and that means fewer trawlers in the sea killing off the ecosystem. Some of this is already being done at a large scale. 

What I'm doing with this organism is trying to modify it to produce chemicals which are more interesting than ethanol or biomass, which makes economical sense and provides potential ecological benefits. For example, you could convert the CO2 into things like plastics which would ‘lock-up’ the carbon long-term, while taking the oil out of that process. With this microbe you could also begin to decarbonise industries - for example, you could potentially make low-emission steel. 

It's never going to be enough to fill all the demand which is currently met by petrochemicals, though. It’s one way of addressing it, but we'll never be able to do enough for the lifestyle we have today. Big companies try to use this technology to say, “Oh, we can keep drilling new oil pits,” but that's not how it works. 


We were approached by a product development team in 2020, who wanted to produce an alternative tree guard to the oil-based and non-biodegradable plastic ones commonly used, which at the end of their life litter the countryside and break down into microplastics and do a lot of harm. 

Reforestation is essential for fighting climate change, so we relished the opportunity of creating something that worked in harmony with growing trees and hedges. Over a period of nine months, Print 4 Ltd invested heavily in creating a tree guard that not only removed all plastics from the product, but also encouraged growth of the saplings. The guards use a specialist card which is FSC-approved, carbon-balanced, has a unique water-phobic barrier and the inks used are all vegetable-based. 

We took a lot of advice from arboriculturists on the design. They not only naturally break down, but they also encourage the growth of the sapling because they create a friendlier climate for it to grow. Thousands of guards were deployed all over the UK with fantastic feedback, along with the Woodland Trust having them on test at various sites, and now the consortium of product developers has formed a business called Grown Green (growngreen.co.uk).


According to the Clean Cooking Alliance, cooking on open fires and on inefficient wood-burning stoves emits 25% of global black carbon emissions. Hence, clean cooking is vital to combat climate change and to reduce environmental degradation. My research into sustainable, appropriate technologies includes the design of novel fuel-efficient wood-burning stoves and biogas cooking systems. 

But developing new cooking technologies is only one part of the solution - it can be very hard to convince people who have been cooking in a certain way to change their behaviour, particularly since cooking is embedded in cultures around the world, with many invisible rules and traditions that may not be immediately obvious to an outsider. Replacing smoky stoves with slightly less smoky stoves will probably have little positive impact on the environment, particularly where there is no way to dispose of rubbish or crop residues apart from burning. 

Instead, a whole community approach is required, which tackles all the sources of smoke and comes up with safer alternatives which are acceptable to everyone. I’m working on such an approach with the Smokeless Village Project in Malawi.

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