Ten year anniversary of an epic road trip – Athens GA to the Trinity testing site, NM.

My career in science has let me visit and live in places I never expected to. While I was a PhD student, I got the chance to work at the famous Complex Carbohydrate Research Centre (CCRC) at the University of Georgia in Athens, GA. Go Dawgs!

Before moving to Athens I’d never even visited the US, and it was a real culture shock. The weather, the people, and the whole lifestyle were so very different from back home. One thing that helped a lot was that I was one of four PhD students who went over there together. This meant I could share an apartment with people from back home – although it was sometimes tough living and working with the same few people!!

To fully take advantage of our time in America, we decided to take a couple of big road trips, journeys far longer than could ever be driven back home in the UK. Almost exactly ten years ago, in October 2009, a friend and I drove from Athens, GA all the way to New Mexico to visit something very special.

The approximate route of our road trip, heading west along the I-20 then back east along the I-10. We made several overnight stops in motels along the way, not always certain what town we were in. Image made using Google Maps.

My friend had discovered that the White Sands missile testing ground, where the very first atomic bomb was built and tested on the Trinity site, is open to visitors on two days of the year. This is because radiation levels are now low enough that a visit every six months is safe, but no more than that. We couldn’t resist going there to see the bomb site and the lab where the bomb was built, but we had a hell of a drive ahead of us.

We made a route plan, packed a bag each, and got on the road at about 6 p.m. after a long day in the lab. We decided we would just look for motels along the way when we got tired, and we would share the driving as close to 50-50 as possible (although I think I did a bit less). Apart from our final destination – White Sands missile testing range in New Mexico – I don’t remember us having many specific destinations in mind. It was such a freeing feeling.

We stopped at some amazing towns and cities along the way, each with its own unique nature. Our first major stop was Dallas, which dazzled me with architecture and political history. Soon after came Roswell, a very small town carrying a huge weight of strangeness. Alien eyes on every lamppost – perfect!

We stopped at two places in New Mexico that we had not previously heard of. Lincoln, NM is a tiny unincorporated village with fewer than 200 residents, but it contains the courthouse where the infamous outlaw Billy the Kid killed deputy Bob Ollinger, his final victim. Truth or Consequences, NM is another small town famous for a very different reason – it renamed itself in order to win a radio prize in 1950! Where else but the USA.

The main event of our trip was of course the Trinity testing site at White Sands. We got to see the bomb site, and the big crater left behind where you can still see tiny shards of green glass that were formed in the heat of the explosion. The glass was named Trinitite and it is forbidden to remove any from the site. We also went inside the “lab” building where the bomb was built. In reality, this was a tiny residential shack where the windows had been covered with plastic to keep the dust out. Hardly what we’d now call sterile conditions!

After Trinity, we had a long journey home ahead of us. We had dinner in San Antonio, and visited the Alamo the afternoon we were there. We just had time for a couple of hours in Texas and New Orleans, before getting back to Athens and back to our lab work!

The visit to Trinity was incredible. Getting to see where something so scientifically impressive yet socially devastating was a really unique experience. But what sticks with me the most to this day is the feeling of space out on the road. For hours at a time we would drive in a straight line with nothing visible ahead or behind us. Nothing I’ve experienced since has come close to that feeling.

New publication! An enzymatic method to produce nanocellulose from softwood chips.

Nanocellulose is an amazing natural material. It is produced by taking cellulose – found in wood, paper, cotton, and so on – and disintegrating it into nanoparticles. These can be used to make paper, films, and gels. They can be assembled into super-strong fibres, or blended with other biomaterials to increase strength and reduce production costs. And because they are made from natural plant biomass, they can be considered a quite sustainable product, since they are derived from renewable resources.

The use of nanocellulose is particularly advanced in Japan, where you can find it in pen ink, some clothing, and footwear. It is very lightweight and also very strong, so it is ideal for these applications. Exploitation is not so advanced in Europe, but companies like Cellutech are developing cellulose-based packaging materials and even a bicycle helmet.

Although the material is produced from environmentally responsible renewable resources, the typical methods for disintegrating cellulose into nanocellulose involve a lot of quite nasty chemicals. Sulphuric acid and a chemical called TEMPO are used, which generates a lot of chemical waste. Sustainable industrial development requires us to minimise the production of waste at all levels, and to find alternatives to chemicals that can damage health or the environment.

This is why many researchers, like a team at KTH Division of Glycoscience, are keen on developing enzyme-catalysed nanocellulose production. Enzymes work at moderate pH and temperature conditions, and no harsh chemicals are used in the enzyme reaction, so the ecological footprint of nanocellulose production can be greatly improved.

This new paper is the first PhD publication for doctoral student Salla Koskela. I co-supervise Salla at KTH in Stockholm, helping her to optimise protein production and enzyme assay protocols. Her main supervisor is Prof Qi Zhou, an expert in biomaterials based on natural polymers like cellulose and chitin. Another of Qi’s students, Shennan Wang, was also instrumental in this work thanks to his ability to characterise biomaterials.

In this work, Salla and Shennan showed that we can take one enzyme – belonging to the class called Lytic Polysaccharide Monooxygenases, or LPMOs – and convert spruce wood into nanocellulose fibres. The wood is first chemically treated to remove lignin and form large cellulose fibres. Then, Salla’s enzyme chops those down to nanofibres. The nanocellulose fibres can be formed into nanopaper, which Shennan can investigate for strength and toughness.

One of the people who peer-reviewed this article before it was published praised our nanocellulose production process for being quite easy (it has relatively few processing steps), and having a high yield of nanocellulose production. These are crucial factors to consider if enzymatic nanocellulose production is ever to be implemented at large commercial scale.

Ours is not the first report of an enzyme being used to make nanocellulose, but we were pleased to be able to achieve a highly detailed characterisation of our final material, including producing nanopapers with high strength. We also believe that we are among the first to produce such thin nanofibres of cellulose – ultra-fine nanocellulose can confer higher strength than slightly thicker fibres.

You can read the paper now at Green Chemistry.

Lytic polysaccharide monooxygenase (LPMO) mediated production of ultra-fine cellulose nanofibres from delignified softwood fibres. Koskela S, Wang S, Xu D, Yang X, Li K, Berglund L, McKee LS, Bulone V, and Zhou Q. Green Chem., 2019,21, 5924-5933

One week of seclusion in the forests of Norrland.

Image adapted from Norrland Wikipedia page under CC BY-SA 2.5 .

My adopted hometown of Stockholm is in the southern half of Sweden, in the region called Svealand. It’s easy for me to forget just how much more of Sweden there is to the north of me than to the south. You can go up on the map a lot further than I have had the chance to explore.

I was invited to teach this August at a summer school for PhD students on the topic of the Wood Materials Biorefinery, focussing on how enzymes can be used to fractionate wood and add value to its molecular components. The school was organised by the Wallenberg Wood Science Centre (WWSC) and Treesearch. I immediately accepted the invitation when I learned that the school was taking place in Örnsköldsvik, a small picturesque town in Norrland, the northern half of Sweden.

My fellow teachers on the course were colleagues with whom I had been trying to write a collaborative review article for at least a year. We had struggled to get our schedules to match up, and belonging to two different universities in Stockholm and Gothenburg made it hard to meet up for discussions.

So we decided to extend our stay in Övik (as it is affectionately called) and turn it into a writers’ retreat. We would buy a week’s worth of food, hole up in a house somewhere, and just work solidly on the article for a week. We wanted to isolate ourselves from all of the usual work tasks that keep an academic from sitting down and writing productively.

We looked for a house on Airbnb that was within 30 minutes of Övik train station and the site of the summer school – close but not too close to civilisation and our teaching appointments. A peaceful location was our primary goal, and we found a big house in the forest, just five minutes’ walk from a beach! The house we booked was big enough that we could work collaboratively on the big kitchen table, and also retreat to separate working areas when we needed space. It sounded too good to be true. (Spoiler alert – it was exactly as good as it had sounded!)

Our house in Örnsköldsvik, at the top of a short bank leading directly up from the sea.

My week began with a 6 a.m. train from Stockholm to Övik, a 6 hour journey made bearable by a free breakfast, sea views, and short science fiction stories on my Kobo e-reader. On arrival, I met up with my colleagues in central Övik, and we bought groceries for the week. Not the most efficient or well-planned food shop – we bought 4 litres of milk for 3 people for 1 week – but we definitely wouldn’t starve during our stay.

One of the major industries around Övik is pulp and paper production, which is why the WWSC students were in the area. Their week included a visit to a nearby paper mill. In Övik, when the wind is right, one can sometimes smell the sulphurous emissions from the paper plant – but this does nothing to spoil the beauty of the town, which sits just on the water. Övik is part of the Höga kusten (High coast) area of Sweden beloved by tourists, and the town sits on a natural harbour at the beginning of an archipelago that feeds into the Gulf of Bothnia.

The beach by our house in Örnsköldsvik. The forest comes all the way down to the water.

Life by the sea is not so novel to me. I grew up in North-East England and have many friends who live in the seaside town of South Shields. But the rest of the Övik landscape did surprise me. As we drove out of town towards the house we’d be staying in, we entered a dense forest that extended really close to the shoreline. Our house was deep in the forest but only a five minute walk down the bank and you were on a sandy beach. Having large trees growing so close to the sea felt odd to me.

When we swam in the sea on our first afternoon I realised that the water was not at all salty, unlike the North Sea that washes in at South Shields. Only hardy grasses can grow on the sand dunes back home, due to the high salt content of the soil and in the air.

Tea on the veranda, a productivity tool I endorse.

Life in the house was quite idyllic. Every day I would eat breakfast on the veranda, then work on my writing solidly for 5-6 hours. With none of the distractions that come from the office, the corridor, and the lab, I was free to be absolutely focussed on the task at hand, and I have never been so productive.

When I wrote my PhD thesis, I would sit and write for 10-12 hours per day, but I was so tired that a lot of what I put on the page was garbage and had to be re-done the next day. The time in Övik was truly productive – I made a lot of good work, and by the end of the week our collaborative review article was almost complete.

After writing for those intense hours, I’d walk down to the beach and sit or lie in the sun. I’d swim on sunny days, or wet my feet on windy days. Then stroll back up the hill for dinner and evening discussions with my colleagues about our progress and our plans for tomorrow.

One whole week with only one thing to do was blissful, and it led to some great writing. It’s unlikely I’ll get to do anything similar for a long time, because of teaching, student supervision, lab work, committee meetings, and conference attendance. But I am planning to organise one-day writing retreats with colleagues for future collaborative articles.

The ability to focus on one important task is a gift to anyone with multiple responsibilities, so grab the chance if you get one.