February 7, 2020

Five for Friday: Women scientists

woman scientist with scientific symbols
The International Day of Women and Girls in Science is celebrated on 11 February. Discover five scientific research innovations spearheaded by Finnish women.
Julia Bushueva

On a mission to help society and companies to grow through technological innovation, VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland is famous across Europe for its ground-breaking research, much of which is led by women scientists.

In Finland, love for science and innovation is cultivated at an early age, with Kide Science setting an exciting example of how to support children’s scientific thinking through play-based learning. Add to this Finland’s high degree of gender equality and it comes as no surprise that women and girls here are encouraged into science careers.

With the International Day of Women and Girls in Science being celebrated on 11 February, here are five examples of VTT Technical Research Centre innovations in which women scientists played a substantial role.

Plastic replacement

As an attractive alternative to fossil raw material-derived plastics or wood, VTT has developed a fully bio-based, thermoformable and biodegradable material that also has the benefit of colouring properties.

Due to its formability, the material is suited for various manufacturing processes and products, such as furniture. At the end of their lifecycle, such products can be re-used, composted or burnt to generate energy without any fossil-based CO2 emissions.

“All the goals we set were achieved: the material is 100 per cent bio-based, cellulose fibres account for a significant proportion, it looks good, and it has excellent performance characteristics,” noted research team leader Lisa Wikström.

Healthy eating

Healthy eating is becoming increasingly important to consumers worldwide. With more people demanding healthier and more personalised grab-and-go snacks, VTT has developed what can be called a food vending machine of the future as part of the FoodMyWay project.

The innovative vending machine dispenses fibre- and protein-rich snacks tailored to the consumer’s wishes and needs. In the future, the machine could offer hyper-customised products based on individual health data and preferences. Such machines are perfect for places where people are on the move: airports, stations, workplaces and shops.

“The machine seamlessly combines several technological solutions,” explained research team leader Emilia Nordlund. “In addition to smart data processing, a lot is also required from the raw materials. In the FoodMyWay project, we explored a number of ingredients that are suitable for fast preparation without sacrificing taste or texture.”

Waste processing

Last year, VTT introduced a new cylindrical extruder designed to process problematic waste, such as plastics and textiles, and turn them into pellets. The novel device is seen as a step forward in the processing of recyclable materials and promoting circular economy business.

Compared to traditional extruders, the VTT’s version is cheaper to make, easy to transport and features a much larger, 30-centimetre screw diameter. The first prototype exceeded the industrial steering group’s expectations during initial testing.

“Many textile recycling processes are only suitable for products containing homogeneous fibres. However, textiles are often made of a mix of fibres, and many products are [composed] of different layers,” clarified senior scientist Pirjo Heikkilä. “The new extruder opens up a revolutionary opportunity to recycle mixed textiles and materials without having to separate fibres or components.”

Sustainable cosmetics

As the hunt for natural skincare ingredients continues in the beauty industry, VTT has come up with a new method of recovering active substances from the husks of berry seeds, which possess antimicrobial and antioxidant properties.

With no toxic reagents or solvents involved in the method, VTT optimised the extraction of healthy compounds, such as polyphenols, found in many Nordic berries. Cloudberries and Arctic raspberries contain higher levels of useful compounds, the research revealed.

“Cosmetics trends include the maintenance of healthy skin and replacement of preservatives with natural compounds,” told principal scientist Riitta Puupponen-Pimiä. “Berry seed husks contain large amounts of antimicrobial compounds, which can help to maintain a natural microbial balance in the skin by suppressing the growth of harmful microbes while [the] beneficial ones flourish.”

Hyperhidrosis treatment

Excessive sweating (or hyperhidrosis) isn’t a life-threatening condition, but it can be very uncomfortable and cause embarrassment. To address the issue, VTT has developed a safe and consumer-friendly treatment device that can be used in hospitals, beauty parlours and at home.

The compact yet efficient device utilises water as the active substance and consists of replaceable treatment electrodes, a control unit that communicates wirelessly with a mobile phone and a mobile application. The less than 30-minute treatment sessions should initially be had a few times a week before becoming weekly.

“The device can be adapted to different applications by tweaking the software and the control unit components and by changing the electrodes,” commented researcher and project manager Saara (Tuurala) Viik. “In addition to treating excessive sweating, the device can also be used to introduce substances such as anti-inflammatory drugs and cosmetics into the body locally, without breaking the skin.”

Text: Zhanna Koiviola

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