S1:E2 – Biotechnology and Water Pollution (María Isabel Amorín)

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The fashion industry is one of the biggest polluters on the planet. María Isabel Amorín, Founder and CEO of INDEQUI, explained the different types of pollution generated by these industries. We talked in detail about water pollution and about an affordable filter that she built to clean the water. Maria Isabel also explained the challenges of building a company in Guatemala and her path to raising funds.

In 2019, María Isabel was recognized by the MIT Technology Review as an innovator in biotechnology.

maria-isabel-amorin
María Isabel Amorín

Transcript

[00:00:00] ES: I’m Edaena Salinas, Software Engineer and host of The Women in Tech Show a podcast about what we work on, not what it feels like to be a woman in tech. For more information about the show go to wit.fm.

The fashion and textile industries are one of the biggest polluters on the planet. María Isabel Amorín, founder and CEO of INDEQUI explained the different types of pollution generated by these industries. We talked in detail about water pollution and about an affordable filter that she built to clean this water. María Isabel also explained the challenges of building a company in Guatemala and her path to raising funds. In 2019, María Isabel was recognized by the MIT Technology Review as an innovator in biotechnology.

Before we move on with the interview, I’m really excited to announce that Season 1 of the 5 Minute Mentor Podcast is now available This is a podcast where you’ll get advice from prominent people in tech, authors, journalists, artists, and more. You can find more information about the show by going to mentors.fm. Thank you.

[00:01:23] ES: María Isabel Amorín, welcome to The Women in Tech Show.

[00:01:27] MA: Thank you so much.

[00:01:28] ES: I’m excited to talk to you today. And some of the things we’re going to be talking about are building solutions to help the environment. In particular, you’ve been exploring solutions to tackle pollution generated by textile factories. Can you give some background on textile factories like what they do and, kind of why they exist?

[00:01:54] MA: The textile industry is this economic activity that has the objective of the production of the fibers, yarn, and making clothing and textile that you can use for your personal or technical or industrial purposes. So, it’s a complex production that includes several steps to cover all the entire production cycle. From the raw materials, the production of the raw material that can even be natural or synthetic one, and then to the production of the final product that could be the fabric or clothing.

[00:02:33] ES: As you’ve been investigating this industry and building solutions to tackle pollution in the environment. Can you talk about some of the impact that you’ve seen textile factories have in the environment.

[00:02:49] MA: Yes, all these textile industry and the fashion industry is one of the major polluting industries in the world. Since the production of the raw materials, the energy that you need to spin in them into fibers also requires a lot of water, uses of chemicals, including pesticides for the growing of the raw material, such as the cotton. On a global scale, the textile industry uses between 6 to 9 trillion liters of water each year just for the public dyeing. So it’s a very polluting industry.

[00:03:28] ES: Wow. Yeah, that’s quite impactful. And in more detail, you’re mentioning impact in different areas like the energy, you know, to manufacture the fibers. Also, you’re saying pesticides. When I was researching for this, I saw you’ve been focusing a lot in the issue with the contaminated water. Can you talk about usually what are some kind of contaminants in the water and then what happens to the water, typically.

[00:03:59] MA: Yes. For example, it all depends on the type of the fiber, but in the dyeing process for cotton for example, that is the most common fiber that is used for making clothing and textiles, the dyeing process often needs a large amount of water and also you have to put there a lot of chemicals, a lot of salt. And the main problem is the process is quite inefficient, the fixation rate is about only 70%. So, you have 30% of the dye that, it will go to the water. And you need to use the salts to change the charge of the fiber. So, in cotton, the cotton is made from cellulose, and cellulose are glucose bond together. And they have hydroxyl groups that are negative charged and the reactive dye is also negative charge. So, it can’t bond there, so it’s a really inefficient process. And that means that many of the dye will go to the water after all the washing.

[00:05:11] ES: So you’re talking right now specifically about the particles involved. And you’ve been talking about charge, like the cotton is formed, it consists of glucose bonds, and then they’re negative charged. And then you’re trying to mix cotton with the dye which is also negative charge. Is this analogous to trying to put together two magnets from the same side?

[00:05:39] MA: Yes, that’s how it would work.

[00:05:41] ES: So people have a visual idea what the industry is trying to do. They’re trying to mix dye with cotton, they’re both negative. So it’s really hard to stick them together, which is one of the reasons why you were saying there’s a lot of wasted dye?

[00:05:55] MA: Yes.

[00:05:55] ES: And, when you’ve been investigating this, what are some of the things that you’ve seen happens to this contaminated water. Where does it end up? What do people do with it?

[00:06:08] MA: Yes, there is a widely used phrase that among the designers, and they say that you can know the color of the fashion next season by the color of the rivers in China. And they use this phrase all the time. So that’s what is happening in developing countries where the most of the production takes place, often, we don’t have a strict environmental legislation. So the way the water is often discharged untreated to the water bodies. In China, it’s estimated that 70% of all the water bodies are contaminated by the textile industry.

[00:06:50] ES: So, this is specifically what you’ve been working on. You’re trying to reduce this pollution in the contaminated water. Can you talk a little bit about what it would take to, you know, filter and clean this water at a high level?

[00:07:09] MA: Yes, there are traditional methods for the remediation of waste water contaminated with dyes and includes electrochemical reactions, chemical press also reverse osmosis. However, these metals have several limitations such as the high operating costs, the low efficiency, production of byproducts and this makes them difficult to acquire in a small scale and in the developing countries, not only in Guatemala also Mexico, Bangladesh, India, there are many textile artisans. The production is made in small scale fabric companies. So, they can’t afford these metals, they can’t afford a reverse osmosis chemical press. So, we were working on providing them a solution to treat this wastewater in a more affordable and more easy way to treat it.

[00:08:07] ES: I was reading that you thought of the solution while you were in school taking classes about polymers. For people that don’t know polymers, what are some main characteristics of polymers. What are they?

[00:08:21] MA: Yeah. So, a polymer is a large molecule, it’s composed of many repeated units that are bound together. Poly means many and mer means part, so it’s a large molecule of many parts. And polymers can be scientific ones like plastics, that plastics or polymers and also there are natural ones that are, they’re biopolymers. So the biopolymers is a polymer that is produced on living organisms. They can be present on the biomass and we can extract them from there.

[00:09:01] ES: What are some living organisms where you saw the polymers present?

[00:09:06] MA: Yes, for example, in plants, in trees, the cellulose is also a polymer. And the chitin that is the main product that I am using it, the chitin is present in some fungi in the exoskeleton of crustaceans and also insects.

[00:09:27] ES: Yes. So you’re using crustaceans specifically prawn shells, right?

[00:09:27] MA: Right.

[00:09:28] ES: What is a reason why you decided to use this versus plants or trees? So what is it about prawn shells?

[00:09:44] MA: Okay, yes. It’s because in this a crustacean shells contains three primary chemicals. There is the calcium carbonate, the chitin and protein. The chitin is a polymer that is the second most abundant natural biopolymer and can be transformed into chitosan, and this chitosan, so they chitin is the acetylated polymer and you made up the acetylation. And you get the chitosan and this chitosan has a lot of applications and a lot of properties due to the positive charge that is in all the chain.

[00:10:26] ES: So we’re talking about, you’re in school taking classes about polymers, this large molecule with repeated units together. And then you’re mentioning how they occur synthetically like plastic but also in nature, like plants and trees, and specifically focusing down on prawn shells. Where do the polymers come into play when trying to build a solution to reduce contaminated water? What is their role in this?

[00:10:59] MA: The positive changes that are on the chain, they can act as a flocculant, it’s the process of the agglomeration of all these particles. So, in wastewater in general, the organic matter has in the surface negative charge, and also as I said before the dyes are negative. So, they can link together to absorb the dye and also to make these agglomeration and to act as a flocculant.

[00:11:33] ES: Once you first are thinking about, this idea in the properties of the contaminated water, the negative charge, and then you see the polymers have a positive charge. What are some of the things that happen next, before you start exploring an idea, do you run experiments or do you read more? Can you talk about that process of coming up with an idea and then try to build it.

[00:11:58] MA: Yes, I think there is a big gap in the lab experiments and then trying to transfer the technology to the industrial sector, you have to make a lot of running experiments with the real wastewater. And that was the thing that I developed during the pilot project because I have run experiments with different dyes, and calculating the efficiency of with every dye in a separate way. And then when I collect the wastewater samples of the industrial process, the pH was different. They were mixing all the dyes so it was a complex project to try to figure it out if you can change the pH to get more efficiently or what happened with the salt, and everything is different when you want to apply it on an industry the thing that you develop on the lab. So we started working since, all the lab experiments in the lab, to then transfer the technology and go into the real industries and working with the artisans and to really develop a technology that could be used in the industrial sector.

[00:13:23] ES: And you’re based in Guatemala.

[00:13:26] MA: Yes.

[00:13:26] ES: Particularly looking at this, providing a affordable solution to artisans that cannot afford other ways of cleaning the water. Can you talk a little bit about the panorama in Guatemala, the textile industry artisan made, just to give some context?

[00:13:47] MA: Yes. In Guatemala, the textile industry is really important it represents the 20% of the product that the country export. However, according to an environmental audit, the 40% of the companies didn’t want to respond to the question what treatment is given to the dye in the wastewater. 10% they say they incinerate the waste. That’s a common practice to incinerate and we are only transporting the problem to the air.

[00:14:20] ES: Yeah like you’re not dumping in the water you’re burning it but then the air is contaminated.

[00:14:25] MA: Yes, and even 30% they only discharge these into the water body with no treatment. And this situation is alarming because we have a lot of polluted water bodies the Platanitos Rivers, Alomar River are always contaminated with different dyes.

[00:14:47] ES: What about in terms of the sea life or the seafood industry? Because, you’re using crustacean shells for the polymer used for the filter for the water?

[00:14:59] MA: Yes. Also in all the world, the shrimp and the prawn shells are globally, they dump these waste in the landfill or even into the sea. In developed countries, they it’s also costly. It’s so costly that I met some owner of a seafood company in Brussels, and he told me that they produce the product, and then they transport it to a Latin American country to peel it because it was cheaper. And also in that way, they don’t have to deal with the waste. And it’s what is happening here, 40% of the skeleton of the prawns is an inedible portions, so therefore is not exportable. So these 40% of the total weight of a shrimp is waste. And is discarded into landfill, so rivers, and is also an environmental risk due to the age of fracture of organic matter.

[00:15:58] ES: Got it. So you’re making use of that waste, the crustacean shells, to build your solution to clean the waste from the textile industries and you’ve founded a company around it. It’s called INDEQUI. Can you talk a bit about the company, its focus.

[00:16:17] MA: Yes. So I founded that company, that it means chemical research development, because I realized that there is a great need in the industry to develop research and development. Many times in other countries, they do partnerships with the academia and this is not happening here. The industries don’t want to invest in laboratories or to hire scientists. And also they are not working together with universities and research institutes. So it’s an opportunity to offer them research and development to make solutions for them. And it has been difficult because when you have to work with chemistry you have to invest in expensive laboratory, the facilities and also to the reactive and the chemical reagents and expensive equipment, but you can also make agreement with industries and also with academia. So that is why I founded this INDEQUI, this company. And CrustaTec is the brand of the polymer and the filter that we develop.

[00:17:32] ES: Got it. I was reading about your journey in this, and founding a company, you’re in Guatemala, and that you encounter difficulty trying to raise funding locally. Can you talk about some of the things you encountered?

[00:17:48] MA: Yes, it had been difficult. They don’t want to invest in science. I think it’s a problem that science and research, they are seen as the entertainment of the scientists. Many times the result of their research remains in the scientific articles, in thesis, and society doesn’t see a science as something important to invest. So it had been very difficult. I think technologies and apps gain more in those projects than in science.

[00:18:23] ES: So you think part of it could be this cultural shift might be needed, where science can become a priority, you know, to improve the local society, right?

[00:18:34] MA: Yes, to really put the results of the research available to the society and that, maybe they change their mind that science is important.

[00:18:46] ES: Another thing I found interesting is so eventually you were able to raise some funds internationally. And you found the organization that could provide you funds through social media which was Young Water Solutions. Can you talk about how you found them or what your social media experience is.

[00:19:07] MA: Yeah, so I saw this post on Facebook for Young Water Solutions. They had a call for applications for these Young Water Solutions fellowship that they develop each year. And this organization is an NGO that aims to develop and support the potential of young people to contribute to water sanitation and water resource management. They empower these young leaders and entrepreneurs and provide them with tools and to develop projects and their business around water. So I saw the application and they were offering training to spend some time in Switzerland learning how to develop a viable business model and how to do a pilot project. They also were offering field funding to the implementation of the project and coaching for the next year when you were doing the project. So I saw that this post on Facebook and I applied with the project, and that was the beginning of everything.

[00:20:21] ES: Yeah, I think this is good that you’re persisting and you weren’t able to get funding locally but you’ve got an internationally. Now you’re building this company in Guatemala, I think this, I hope, will help change things locally. And then it can be an example of a successful company that’s applying science and then hopefully open the door to more scientists in Guatemala to get their inventions out there applied to real world scenarios.

[00:20:53] MA: Yes, I hope so.

[00:20:55] ES: Well, María Isabel, thank you for coming on the show is been great talking to you about this.

[00:21:02] MA: Thank you, so much. Thank you for this opportunity.

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