“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 in Alaska there is no well-developed agricultural culture. What connects us is the ocean and ocean health. Plastic and microplastic 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 to it.
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. Plastic is a convenient material that has taken the world by surprise over the past 100 years. We do not know how to handle it, because this is new material. It is not like wool or metal, or, say, glass. This is something we have not dealt with before.
“Fish are amino acids that support the work of our brain and our entire body, it is a protein that is easily absorbed by both the child’s body and the adult’s body,” says Elena Roik, Philippe’s wife. - The main problem is that the plastic that gets into the water breaks up into smaller parts that fall into the meat of 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 caught your treasured salmon. How do you deliver it to your native Detroit? Or in Sydney? Or in Tokyo? - says Philip. Now this environmentally friendly fish flies in very environmentally dirty foam boxes. I approached this from the perspective of design thinking: how can I solve a complex problem in which there are 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 symbioses 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, I worked for the first year as director of a health group that served indigenous communities beyond the Arctic Circle. In any of these villages there is the same problem: even before your plane lands there, you see a landfill. The main component of this garbage is plastic. All its forms, including polystyrene. The indigenous people who have lived in this ecology for the last 10 of thousands of 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 the city of Homer in Alaska when she flew here from distant Arkhangelsk to attend a graduate 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 with her 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 were two of mine - Noah and Benya (Benjamin). We created this new reality together. These four began to gradually see each other as brothers and sisters, which was unique because they were very different.
I am engaged in the development of biomaterials. Biomaterials is now a fairly well-known concept, which includes materials 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 that we use now, which were synthetically manufactured.
For example, the question of how to create a surface that will repel water is not a trivial task. Because mushrooms often absorb water, water is a source of nutrition for them. How to create surfaces that will repel water, rather than attract it, because you do not want boxes that will absorb 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 find out where the plastic appears in the environment and find an environmentally friendly replacement for it.
For many years I traveled with my dad in 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 through rapids, it was terribly interesting, a little scary, and probably this is part of the genetic code gradually. Love for the North is what you gain. I think this is what happened to me. In Alaska, it is called "pull to the north."
“It's very close to the North, where I grew up, where my roots are,” says Elena. - There are a lot of similarities between Alaska and northern Russia: fish, mushrooms, caviar, love for the forest, plus there are still mountains, very beautiful mountains. Alaska is a large state, people here move either by water, or by car, or by air. Most settlements are simply impossible to reach. "Not far from us is a lake, on which planes land in summer and winter, and the sound of flying planes is here all the time.”
In 90, when perestroika began and emigration was open for Russian Jews, we moved to Israel. I began to search for myself and went to travel the world. 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. He entered graduate school (PhD), and, having finished it, began to look for work in a place where the problems of climate change, environmental design, ecology coincide. Alaska is an ideal place in this regard. Everything is there, and everything is exaggerated. When you see a glacier that melts because we had an unusually hot summer, you cannot avoid it. It affects your real life.
Mushrooms in the forest have a lot of functions, and this is an integral part of the ecosystem. One of the important things that fungi do is to separate complex organic molecules into constituent chemical elements so that tree elements can be used by plants and animals for the next life cycle. In our century, our reality, they have an additional role. The process begins in the forest with the search for the right mushroom, which can be friends with us and serve as the basis for the material with the qualities that we need. Then he goes to the laboratory, where we work under sterile conditions to grow mycelium into a layer (board). The board itself is so stiff that you can stand on it. When we cut this board, it turns out 6 parts. These parts are inserted into the box, it becomes a container into which salmon is immersed and flies in an unknown direction. In the box we put the sensor,
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 that has not yet existed. It started with a small grant of 25 thousand dollars from the University of Alaska. Then we received funding from the large oil company ConocoPhillips - they understand that the era of oil is coming to an end and it is important to invest in alternative technologies for their survival. Then we got a small grant from a federal program that finances US research and technology commercialization.
Polyfoam is really the cheapest at the moment. But the question is - who pays? If we look at the price from the ecosystem, the price is very high, it increases very quickly.
One problem that many researchers face is the lack of knowledge and understanding of the law that governs patents. Any invention must be protected from copying. We understand this intuitively. The American Patent Office has been reviewing each application for several years, and in 2016, we started this process. He is 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 that can then be used 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 produce it in another region of the world.
Unfortunately, our situation at the university is in jeopardy because the Governor of Alaska, Mark Dunlavy, has adopted a dialogue position that rejects climate change and the need for a university to deal with such issues. Reducing the budget of the university affects our work, the ability to attract creative people, scientists who will continue to work with us. Therefore, we decided to go beyond the university and create a startup so that this technology is possible. We will create a small experimental biofactory where all these technologies will be implemented. We plan by the next May to produce enough boxes so that the fishing companies we are working with can buy them from us so that their market sector is satisfied with this. I think that we are close to the moment when we can produce material and objects from biomaterial 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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