“We ourselves created this problem”: a Russian-speaking immigrant in Alaska has developed a unique alternative to plastic
Philip Amstislavsky, a professor at the University of Alaska and an enthusiastic ecologist, enjoys spending time in the woods and fishing. Philip wants to save humanity from harmful waste, he invented organic material with the properties of foam and hopes to introduce it into mass production. He told his story Voice of America.
In Alaska, fishing, hunting is not a luxury, as we imagine it in more southern latitudes, but a necessity, because there is no well-developed agriculture in Alaska. What connects us is the ocean and ocean health. Plastic and microplastics not only affect the health of flora and fauna systems, but also pose a serious threat to human health. We decided to work on this problem and find a solution.
My name is Philip Amstislavsky, I am a researcher and professor of health at the University of Alaska in Anchorage. I am researching biomaterials and green technologies that could be adopted and adapted in Alaska and other northern regions.
I was born in Yekaterinburg, in the Urals. Then we lived in the Yamal-Nenets Autonomous Okrug on the Yamal Peninsula. If it is not north, then I do not know what is north.
We ourselves have created a huge problem for ourselves. Plastic is a comfortable material that has taken the world by surprise over the past 100 years. We don't know how to handle it because it is new material. It's not like wool or metal or, say, glass. This is something that we have not dealt with before.
“Fish are amino acids that support the functioning of our brain and our entire body, it is a protein that is easily absorbed by both a child's body and an adult's body,” says Elena Roik, Philip's wife. - The main problem is that the plastic that gets into the water breaks down into smaller pieces that get into the meat of the animals. When we eat, this plastic gets into us. We don't even know about it and we don't see him, but he is there. "
Let's say you come to Alaska, you have caught your cherished salmon. How do you get him to his native Detroit? Or Sydney? Or Tokyo? - Philip argues. Now this eco-friendly fish flies in very eco-dirty foam boxes. I approached this from the standpoint of design thinking: how can you solve a complex problem with so many components? I began to look for an organism that can work with us: penicillin, beer, Russian kvass - these are mushroom products. For thousands of years we have created symbiosis with mushrooms.
I had a friend named John Adams, who was an amateur mycologist and an avid mushroom picker. We came up with the idea of taking lignocellulose (the main components of a tree) and sprouting mycelium through it. And see what properties this material will have. Can a mushroom be tamed so that we can produce materials with it, and what kind of mushroom it should be. Why was it so interesting? Because it is a problem that is in front of you.
When I moved to Northern Alaska, my first year was as the director of a health group that served indigenous communities in the Arctic Circle. Any of these villages have the same problem: even before your plane lands there, you see a junkyard. The main component of this waste is plastic. All its forms, including polystyrene. The indigenous people who have lived in this ecology for the past 10 thousand years understand this problem very clearly and clearly. And everyone wants a solution. But there were no technological alternatives to plastic. This is where we found our niche.
Lena is my wife. We met her a few years ago in Homer, Alaska, when she flew here from distant Arkhangelsk to participate in a postgraduate school for PhD students from all over the Arctic, which was organized by the University of Norway for students of health and epidemiology. I taught at this school and we met there. Then I visited Lena in Arkhangelsk, then she came to New York, then I visited her in Arkhangelsk again, and last year, last fall, we decided to get married.
She came to America with her two daughters Ira and Anya, with me there were two of mine - Noah and Benya (Benjamin). We created this new reality together. The four began to gradually see each other as brothers and sisters, which was unique because they are so different.
I am developing biomaterials. Biomaterials are now a fairly well-known concept that includes materials that are not made synthetically, like most things that are now on us, and this is an alternative to such technologies. My goal is to create technologies that do not create or create minimal damage to the environment and perform functions similar to the functions of the materials we use now, which have been synthetically manufactured.
For example, the question of how to create a surface that will repel water is not a trivial task. Because mushrooms often suck in water, water is a source of nutrition for them. How do you create surfaces that will specifically repel water, and not attract it, because you don't want boxes that will suck in water? Our research is aimed at identifying different types of plastic and determining its amount in the coastal strip. First of all, we are trying to figure out where plastic appears in the environment and find an environmentally friendly replacement for it.
For many years I traveled with my dad across the Russian North with his expeditions. He was an ichthyologist and dealt with the problems of the North, including salmon. We climbed mountain rivers, descended over rifts, it was terribly interesting, a little scary, and probably this is gradually entering the genetic code. Love for the North is what you acquire. I think this is what happened to me. In Alaska, this is called “northward thrust”.
“It is very close to the North, where I grew up, where my roots are,” says Elena. - There are many similarities between Alaska and the north of Russia: fish, mushrooms, caviar, love for the forest, plus there are also mountains, very beautiful mountains. Alaska is a large state, people move here either by water, or by car, or by air. It is simply impossible to get to most of the settlements. Not far from us is a lake, on which planes land both in summer and in winter, and the sound of flying planes is here all the time. "
In the 90s, when perestroika began and emigration was open for Russian Jews, we moved to Israel. I started looking for myself and went to travel the world. At first I ended up in Northern Europe, then in Los Angeles, then in New York. At some point, I decided that I wanted to do environmental design. I entered graduate school (PhD), and after finishing it, I began to look for work in a place where the problems of climate change, environmental design, ecology coincide. Alaska is the perfect place for this. Everything is here, and everything is exaggerated. When you see a glacier melting because we have had an unusually hot summer, you cannot avoid it. It affects your real life.
Mushrooms in the forest have many functions, and they are an integral part of the ecosystem. One of the important things mushrooms do is break down complex organic molecules into their constituent chemical elements so that the elements of the tree can be used by plants and animals for the next cycle of life. In our century, in our reality, they have an additional role. The process begins in the forest with finding the right mushroom that can be friends with us and serve as the basis for material with the qualities we need. Then he goes to the laboratory, where we work in sterile conditions to grow the mycelium into a layer (board). The board itself is so rigid that you can stand on it. When we cut this board, 6 pieces are obtained from it. These parts are inserted into the box, it becomes a container in which the salmon is immersed and flies in a direction unknown to us. We put the sensor in the box,
which gives us the opportunity to find out how the temperature of the fish changed during its travel around the world.
We are trying to introduce an innovative product into the economic system of Alaska and America, which has not yet existed. It started with a small grant of $ 25 from the University of Alaska. Then we received funding from the big oil company ConocoPhillips - they understand that the era of oil is coming to an end and it is important for their survival to invest in alternative technologies. Then we got a small grant from a federal program that funds research and technology commercialization in the United States.
Polyfoam is really the cheapest at the moment. But the question is - who pays? If we look at the price from the ecosystem side, the price is very high, it increases very quickly.
One of the problems many researchers face is a lack of knowledge and understanding of the law that governs patents. Any invention must be protected from copying. We understand this all intuitively. The American Patent Office has been reviewing each application for several years and in 2016 we began this process. He's important. This is the only way you can create the viability of an idea by creating some kind of capital around it. A patent is something you can then use to create licensing. A company that has a technological base to produce our materials can come to us and we can sell this technology so that they can produce it in another region of the world.
Unfortunately, our situation at the university is in jeopardy because Alaska Governor Mark Dunleavy has adopted a dialogue position that denies climate change and the need for a university to address such issues. Reducing the university budget affects our work, the ability to attract creative people, scientists who will continue to work with us. So we decided to go beyond the university and create a startup to make this technology possible. We will create a small experimental biofactory where all these technologies will be brought to life. We plan to produce enough boxes by next May so that the fishing companies we work with now can buy from us to satisfy their market sector. I think we are close to the point where we can produce biomaterial material and objects that can be produced on a mass scale.
At the moment, many ecosystems of our planet are under enormous threat. They are disappearing. I would like to devote the following years of my work to the creation of projects and studies that would create a symbiosis, and not a conflict between human activity and nature. We would like our children to be able to participate in a world where such an understanding exists and where they can develop and live an interesting, healthy and creative life. I think this is the main reason why I get up every morning and I am still interested in this work.
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