How an Egyptian engineer turns sugar cane waste into tableware

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Like many women, Irene Samy Fahim Gabriel found her vocation in the scientific world at a very young age. “My friends and I were arguing over who would get the best grades, and my favorite subjects were math and science,” she says. The National. “Also, in my family, I am surrounded by engineers.”

So when a professor told her about the many benefits of recycling waste in 1998 – when she was still a student – ​​Gabriel was immediately taken with the idea. “It just felt like an important topic that I needed to delve into,” she says.

Fast forward to today, and Gabriel is one of 14 Arab women who have been recognized by L’Oréal-Unesco’s Middle East Regional Talent Program for Women in Science.

We have three million tons of sugar cane waste that goes unmonitored in Egypt every year

Irène Samy Fahim Gabriel, engineer

Although the annual awards are nothing new, its first physical event in the Middle East took place at the Dubai Exhibition Center at Expo 2020 Dubai on February 9 and rewarded young talent – ​​including two women from the United Arab Emirates. – to honor their scientific discoveries. , technology, engineering and mathematics (the root subjects). The ceremony also marked the International Day of Women and Girls in Science on February 11.

Being selected was “warming,” says Gabriel, who has applied for the award five times in the past. “I am so happy, so proud. It proves that hard work and perseverance pays off.

So what is his award-winning achievement? It’s about Gabriel’s research into practical ways to turn sugar cane waste – called bagasse – into single-use tableware.

“We have three million tons of sugarcane waste that goes unmonitored in Egypt every year,” she says. “The sugar industry usually produces sugar and then burns or leaves the sugarcane waste. It is sometimes used in papermaking, but this industry is also in decline as people prefer gadgets to paper.

The last few years have also seen the rise of another problem: the proliferation of single-use cutlery. “Especially because of Covid-19, there has been a demand for disposable cutlery. The industry needs environmentally friendly replacements.

So Gabriel put two and two together and started treating the sugarcane waste pulp with oil- and water-resistant chemicals that could then be used as eco-friendly disposable tableware.

The idea of ​​recycling bagasse is not unknown. It is considered an environmentally friendly alternative to polystyrene in other parts of the world. However, its use in the Middle East is still new. For Gabriel, this meant going to paper-making companies in Egypt that used sugar cane waste and acquiring the raw material from them.

We need more women to lead by example. It spreads the message that if there’s passion, you can do whatever you want.

Irene Samy Fahim Gabriel

“It was difficult to get the raw material. These companies are part of government entities and I had to make sure they knew it was for research purposes. But after telling them about my project, they found it useful as a replacement for papermaking.

She also found a way to simplify the process by buying the liquid paste directly from the companies, treating it with environmentally friendly chemicals, then using a machine to press it into the dishes. “My process reduces water consumption by 50% and saves five kilowatts of electricity per kilogram of bagasse [compared to traditional practices]. It’s a more circular and durable design, which is why I filed a patent for it,” she says.

If granted, it could be a game-changer. Bagasse tableware saves on carbon emissions and reduces water and fuel requirements. It is durable, capable of holding hot and cold foods, suitable for the freezer and microwave, and is degradable. Finally, because it uses waste, it is also 20% cheaper than other alternatives.

“You’ll basically be able to get good quality for a low price,” says Gabriel.

A patent could also propel her from researcher to entrepreneur, but Gabriel is taking it head on, especially because she’s championing the all-important green cause.

“I would love to see this product used as a replacement for Styrofoam. I feel like Egypt, with its geographic proximity to so many countries, could be a market leader with this product. So I am definitely working there- on it, and I also have a partner who specializes in this field. It is my biggest dream and I hope to realize it in the years to come.

She hopes her efforts will also encourage more women to enter the field. “It’s not that big of an issue these days, but there are still people who think women aren’t capable of being in fields like engineering and science,” she says.

According to the last Unesco scientific report published in June 2021, the number of women in scientific careers is increasing, although it still stands at just over 33% globally. “We need more women to lead by example,” says Gabriel. “It sends the message that if there is passion, you can do whatever you want.”

Other Arab women awarded at the L’Oréal-Unesco Prize For Women in Science Middle East 2022

Doctoral students:

Arij Yehya, Qatar: For her research into identifying the factors that drive the widening gender gap in personality traits to further assess current and future gender policies.

Halima Alnaqbi, UAE: For his research on improving the organ transplant system to include Arab ethnic groups.

Rachel Njeim, Lebanon: For his research on the contribution of NETosis to the pathogenesis of diabetic nephropathy.

Sama Hassan Ali Rahmatullah, Iraq: For his research on the control of pollution caused by the genetic variation of plants associated with soils contaminated by petroleum hydrocarbons.

Sarah Abdelkader, Egypt: For his research into sustainable on-site methods of treating agricultural wastewater for reuse in irrigation.

Post-doctoral researchers:

Dr. Ghada Dushaq, UAE: For his research in the discovery of new materials and structures through photonics to improve the speed, capacity and accuracy of conventional technologies.

Dr. Hend Alqaderi, Kuwait: For his research on the use of oral fluids as a non-invasive diagnostic tool for the early diagnosis and management of Covid-19 disease and other inflammatory diseases.

Dr. Nura Adam Mohamed, Qatar: For his research on the development of new unconventional therapeutic tools to prevent the development of diabetes mellitus and cardiovascular disease.

Dr. Ingy Ibrahim Abdallah, Egypt: For his research on overcoming receptor mutations in targeted cancer therapy.

Dr. Heba Alzaben, Jordan: For his research on the use of thermal remote sensing to monitor ecosystem health.

Dr. Hiba N Rajha, Lebanon: For his research on the recovery of food waste through the incorporation and nanoencapsulation of grape skin polyphenols in various cosmetic products.

Dr. Nirmeen Elmadany, Palestine: For his research on targeting immunosuppressive proteins in the glioblastoma microenvironment for enhanced tumor response to immunotherapy.

Dr. Waad Saftly, Syria: For his research on the evolution of galaxies throughout the history of the universe.

Updated: February 16, 2022, 03:36

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