Exploring sustainable energy storage in Colombia

Research at Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana

Pictured above: Dr. Esteban Garcίa-Tamayo (second from right) and colleagues at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana are using fique plants, pictured behind them, to create new sustainable energy storage.

Coffee, Colombia’s most famous export, is stored and shipped in sturdy woven bags made from a local plant called fique (Furcraea bedinghausii), also known as sisal. The fibers of the fique plant are notoriously strong, but creating textiles wastes nearly 95% of the plant itself.

As a nanoscientist specializing in energy delivery, Esteban Garcίa-Tamayo, PhD, believes that the byproducts of this process may be essential for the future of sustainable energy storage.

Coffee bags with the legend "Product of Colombia"
A coffee bag made from fique

Using the fique waste from coffee bag production, Dr. Garcίa-Tamayo, associate professor of engineering, and Stiven Guzman, graduate student, at the Universidad Pontificia Bolivariana (UPB) in Medellin, Colombia, and their team produced bacterial nanocellulose, tiny nano-scale fibrils of the plant material that have enormous potential to store energy.

While researchers in the Department of Nanotechnology Engineering were searching for solutions to energy storage in natural materials, the department gained its own energy for a wide range of research projects.

Energizing students

Prior to their Instrumental Access award in 2017, faculty in the Department of Nanotechnology Engineering at UPB were utilizing other labs at the university but had no dedicated laboratory space for themselves.

In this first-of-its-kind department in South America, recruiting students to do high-level graduate research was a struggle.

But in June 2018, the department got a new, expansive home. An Instrumental Access shipment with 450 pieces of equipment arrived on campus—allowing Dr. Garcίa-Tamayo and colleagues to outfit an entirely new space with the Instrumental Access equipment.

Stiven Guzman
Stiven Guzman, a student who returned to UPB for graduate studies in energy storage

And with that new space came renewed student interest in nanotechnology.

“For students, it’s important to know they now have sufficient lab infrastructure. When they saw this big shipment of equipment, they got very interested,” says Dr. Garcίa-Tamayo. “The nanotechnology students who helped us unpack and assemble the labs got excited from the beginning. Then a new pool of students started to get interested in energy research.”

Stiven Guzman, says Dr. Garcίa-Tamayo, returned to UPB for graduate studies with the goal of studying the energy storage possibilities in fique plant fibers.

Energizing fique

The fique plant study is now part of a larger research collaboration between UPB and Queen Mary University in London. As part of the UK’s Newton Fund Institutional Links program, the working group will contribute to the training of three early-career scientists from UPB, a collaboration made more feasible with UPB’s Instrumental Access equipment.

The collaborating institutions are trying to solve one large problem: the world’s current practice of storing energy in single-use batteries is contributing to environmental and political instability.

Environmentally, the batteries are simply unsustainable, as they are not designed for multiple uses. And the high demand for the raw materials needed for battery production can lead to unsafe conditions for hundreds of thousands of cobalt miners in mineral-rich countries. The demand for other materials, such as graphite, has geopolitical implications as well.

Fique, according to Dr. Garcίa-Tamayo, could hold the answer to these problems.

“Some of my colleagues at UPB have used this bacterial nanocellulose for other applications, like textiles and wound dressing. But they had never explored energy applications,” says Dr. Garcίa-Tamayo. “We wanted to work together because the structure of nanocellulose, which is very porous, makes it appealing for the energy storage for my field.”

So far, the collaboration has shown a number of early successes, both scientific and economic. For one, the research group began partnering with local fique producers to purchase the fique byproducts not used in the production of coffee bags, providing income for what was once thought of as waste.

The scientific successes are promising as well. The nanocellulose derived from fique has shown promising ability to store energy, and tapping into this potential has been aided by the Instrumental Access equipment that arrived at UPB in 2018.

Dr. Garcίa-Tamayo and his colleagues are currently comparing multiple techniques for turning what he calls “fique juice”—the gel-like cellulose initially derived from the fique waste—into the nanocellulose with energy storage capabilities.

Using equipment from Seeding Labs, they are removing most of the water in the fique juice and analyzing how efficiently the resulting product stores energy.

Snowball effect

The nanoscience underpinning this work is massively complicated, but its benefits are simple to understand.

Fique can provide another avenue for energy storage, one that is both efficient and renewable. Tapping into this potential is a matter of having the right lab equipment.

“I don’t think the research projects we have that are running today would have been possible without the infrastructure and processes that Instrumental Access promoted,” says Dr. Garcίa-Tamayo. “It is difficult to know cause and effect, but I think the influx of equipment generated a snowball effect for our department and research.”

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Kaitlin Snyder

Kaitlyn Snyder
Logistics Intern

Kaitlyn started working for Seeding Labs in 2023. She works closely with the Scientific Director in the Instrumental Access program.

Kaitlyn is currently a junior at Boston University studying Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

Jennifer Raymond

Jennifer Raymond
Corporate Relations
Senior Manager

Jennifer partners with corporations, universities, and nonprofit organizations to identify opportunities to repurpose surplus scientific laboratory equipment that will in turn empower talented scientists in developing countries through the Instrumental Access program.

Prior to joining Seeding Labs, Jennifer served as a Development Officer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, where she managed relationships with donors, foundations, and corporations to advance the groundbreaking work of research scientists.

She also directed membership programs for the Boston Symphony Orchestra and alumni relations for the Heller School for Social Policy and Management at Brandeis University. Jennifer graduated from Wellesley College with a BA in French studies and a minor in philosophy.

Manisha Patel

Manisha Patel
Scientific Director

Manisha uses her scientific expertise to implement the equipment-related aspects of Seeding Labs’ programs and plays a key role in Instrumental Access.

She provides support to Instrumental Access awardees, helping them choose the instruments that best meet their research and teaching goals. She also advises the Corporate Relations team on equipment that would be useful in our awardees’ labs.

Manisha has extensive experience in managing academic research labs with knowledge spanning lab setup, compliance, and equipment training. Most recently, she oversaw labs at Harvard University.

For the past decade, Manisha directed an undergraduate internship program focused on one of her passions:  diversity and inclusion in STEM. She holds a BS in ecology from Rutgers University and an MS in ecology from the University of Vermont.

Micaela Leaska

Micalea Leaska
Programs Specialist,
Metrics & Evaluation

Micalea works with the Programs team to develop and implement metrics and evaluation tools, and to monitor the worldwide impact of Instrumental Access. She compiles and analyzes quantitative data and qualitative stories that exemplify our mantra, “talent is everywhere.”

Her prior work experience includes consulting for the World Bank, working on Water Security Assessments for Peru and Central America, and improving access to safe water in rural Ecuadorian communities with the nonprofit WaterStep.

Micalea holds a BA from Saint Michael’s College and completed her Master’s degree in Climate Change and Global Sustainability from SIT Graduate Institute, where she studied global science issues alongside scientists, stakeholders, and community members in Iceland, Tanzania, and Ecuador.

Chiudo Ehirim

Chiudo Ehirim
Instrumental Access

After completing an Atlas Corps Fellowship with Seeding Labs, Chiudo now provides support to our Instrumental Access partners from his Rumines Ltd. office in Lagos, Nigeria. Chiudo is CEO of Rumines, an environmental technology and management consulting company.

Prior to his fellowship, Chiudo was a country manager for Nigeria with Climate Scorecard, a US-based organization that monitors how the top 25 greenhouse gas-emitting countries implement the Paris Agreement on climate change.

Chiudo earned a BS in pure and industrial chemistry from the University of Nigeria and a Master’s of Science in environmental technology and management from the University of Port Harcourt in Nigeria.

David Borman

David Borman, PhD

David works to highlight the innovation and scientific successes of Instrumental Access awardees. In telling these scientists’ stories, he helps to show the global impact of the Seeding Labs mission.

Prior to joining Seeding Labs, David worked as the alumni affairs director for Brevard College in North Carolina and managed communications for Kids Center for Pediatric Therapies, a nonprofit in Louisville, Kentucky, that provides services to children with special needs.

David earned his PhD in English from the University of Miami. He holds an MA in English from the University of Louisville and a BA in English from Bellarmine University.

Christine Srivastava

Christina Viola Srivastava

Vice President of Programs

Christina is responsible for program development, planning, and implementation at Seeding Labs. Her portfolio also includes metrics and evaluation and communications.

Christina has experience as a research program evaluator and science policy analyst. She’s held roles with the consulting firm Abt Associates, Inc. and the Science and Technology Policy Institute.

Prior to entering the consulting world, Christina worked for the Boston-area nonprofits Alliance for the Prudent Use of Antibiotics and Urban Ecology Institute. She holds an undergraduate degree in biology from Swarthmore College

Rick Sherman

Rick Sherman

Vice President of Philanthropy

Rick is responsible for the fundraising activities at Seeding Labs, engaging with corporations, foundations, and individuals to increase their financial and equipment donations to the organization.

Prior to joining Seeding Labs, Rick spent 17 years working in a similar capacity at a number of science-focused organizations, including Keystone Symposia, the Carnegie Institution for Science, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation (now the Science History Institute).

Rick earned an MS in Finance from Drexel University, and a BS in Paper Science and Engineering from State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry.

David Qualter

Vice President of Operations

David is responsible for global logistics at Seeding Labs, overseeing the efficient movement of lab equipment worldwide.

He joined Seeding Labs from Image Arts, a subsidiary of Hallmark Cards, where he provided logistics direction for the company with $110 million in annual sales.

He brings 20 years of supply chain management experience with in-depth knowledge of international logistics, warehouse execution, and distribution center operations.

Originally an art student at Southeastern Massachusetts University, David now uses his creative talents to develop logistics strategies that produce operational efficiencies and quality customer service.

Melissa P. Wu, PhD

Melissa P. Wu, PhD

Chief Executive Officer

Please direct speaking requests to media@seedinglabs.org

As the CEO of Seeding Labs, Dr. Melissa P. Wu connects scientists and institutions around the world to help reduce barriers to scientific discovery.

Part scientist, part engineer, and part facilitator, Melissa brings strategic insight and rigorous methodology to her work, together with a dedication to helping people.

Melissa is driven by two overarching values: that scientific research is a critical tool for improving human lives, and that research thrives and we as a community make the best discoveries when we foster diversity in perspectives, approaches, and ideas. Joining these two ideas has given her a career focus on creating opportunities for people of all backgrounds to engage in scientific research.

Prior to being named CEO of Seeding Labs in 2019,
Melissa served as Senior Vice President of Operations. She revamped Seeding Labs’ Instrumental Access program to increase its efficiency while expanding its impact.

Melissa’s previous positions at the Harvard Office for
Diversity Inclusion and Community Partnership and the BioBuilder Educational Foundation helped spread scientific knowledge to students nationwide.

She is proud to have mentored many students through
programs at the Journal of Emerging Investigators, Harvard, Boston Children’s Hospital, and MIT.

Melissa earned a PhD in Cellular and Developmental
Biology from Harvard University and holds an SB in Biology from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.