To achieve human wellbeing in planetary boundaries, we need new sustainable solutions to wisely use our natural resources. The Bioinnovation Center especially focuses on innovations in sustainable bio-based materials, with special focus on textiles and packaging.
Luana Dessbesell aims to translate bioproducts research into commercial success
Luana Dessbesell began her professorship at Aalto University School of Chemical Engineering in February 2023. Originally from Brazil, she has in recent years worked as researcher and forest engineer in Ontario and Quebec, Canada.
Dessbesell says she had no plans to move out of Canada. However, she came across a LinkedIn post on a professorship at Aalto University that seemed tailor-made for her.
“I always keep a close eye on the leading institutions in forestry and chemical engineering in the forest sector, so I knew of Aalto. I had only met one professor, Orlando Rojas, who had worked there. And I thought that if someone like him worked there, Aalto must be a great place. Orlando heartily recommended Aalto and told me I would love it there”, Dessbesell says.
Besides work, Dessbesell was drawn to the lifestyle that living in Finland would offer her family. It is feasible to live relatively close to the Aalto campus and the city of Helsinki, while simultaneously being surrounded by forests and opportunities for outdoors activities.
“In the larger Canadian cities, 40 minutes away from campus is considered close, and you’re still within the confines of the city. I enjoy the fact that in Finland, I can practically live in a forest and be on campus in 30 minutes”, Dessbesell says.
Working with the rhythms of nature
Dessbesell’s research group uses sustainability assessments and methods to measure the potential of emerging innovations that are coming from forest residues. The group takes a “soil-to-soil” approach in their work, meaning that bioproducts are assessed from their conception to the end-of-life stage in a circular fashion. Even after hundreds of recycles, everything returns to earth in some form.
“Our job is to try to understand, from an engineering viewpoint, what it takes to use trees to design something that not only meets the technical requirements but is also economically feasible, and that can have significant potential environmental benefits”, says Dessbesell.
Dessbesell points out that working with nature is inherently unpredictable – the researchers cannot have control over every parameter. Polymers taken from fossil sources might have been optimized over the course of hundreds of years, whereas any process that uses biomass must work within natural constraints.
“Nature has made this beautiful thing, the tree, which contains polymers like lignin, cellulose, and hemicellulose. But we are breaking them down and creating new polymers, new chemicals. Any little change in, for instance, the harvesting season, on the feedstock, on the trees themselves can change the quality of the process”, says Dessbesell.
New technologies have a potential advantage if they consider circularity from the very beginning, instead of adapting later.
From research innovations to viable technologies
There is a lot of uncertainty when an innovation leaves a university, which makes it difficult for anyone to accept the risks and take the technology further. One of the main tasks of Dessbesell’s group is to pinpoint the challenges and risk mitigation strategies that research innovations face when they leave the university to become a reality.
Even after the technical aspects of new innovations have been figured out, there is a regulatory landscape of matters like funding and intellectual property rights that university projects must learn to navigate.
Dessbesell says it might take 10 to 15 years for a new technology to become a reality because it can be hard for researchers to understand the path and world of commercial products and to communicate to implementation partners along the value chain.
“But over this time, maybe we can help them to demonstrate from the beginning, from concept, that they can have an enhanced sustainability profile. New technologies have a potential advantage if they consider circularity from the very beginning, instead of adapting later.”
Breaking out of silos and fostering critical thinking
Dessbesell says that none of her work can be achieved in isolation. Her professorship is funded by the Aalto University Bioinnovation Center, which is fundamentally based on the ideas of multidisciplinarity and collaboration with industry.
“The way I plug into the Bioinnovation Center is that I bring a focus on sustainability across disciplines. We work across Aalto, in collaboration with other schools such as ARTS and BIZ, with industry engineering management, all these different fields, so that we can have a more holistic look into the technologies and how to help them gain traction from the industry, to further their development, and to find funding.”
The Sustainable Bioproducts Innovation research group also consists of people from various disciplines. For instance, the group has a doctoral researcher with a background in environmental engineering and circularity, a chemical engineer with strong techno-economic experience, a social scientist, a master’s student who works specifically on innovation commercialization, and a cellulosic materials development doctoral researcher.
Dessbesell also teaches in the Bioproducts Engineering master’s program. She says the program deals with the themes of sustainability and circularity on a deep level that hopefully enhances the critical thinking skills of the students.
“It’s easy nowadays to get confused about what to concentrate on and end up in an existential crisis. The students are not only concerned about solving sustainability issues from a career standpoint, but also as consumers. The Bioproducts Engineering program is not just about creating sustainable products – it’s about critical thinking on a deeper level. And I hope the students can see the difference”, Dessbesell says.
Interested in research collaboration? Contact us
Luana Dessbesell is actively building networks linking the Bioinnovation Center with academic and industry partners. If you are interested collaboration opportunities, please be in touch.