Edinburgh Napier spinout launches biodegradable ‘forever chemicals’ alternative

(L-R) Dominic O’Rourke and Mark Dorris, with waste seaweed on the right and treated Mercel nanomaterial centre and left (Image credit: Edinburgh Napier University)

AN Edinburgh Napier University spinout has discovered a method of using seaweed waste to produce a biodegradable alternative to chemical plastics.

The discovery was made during Mark Dorris and Dominic O’Rourke’s research with the advanced materials group at the university’s school of computing, engineering, and the built environment.

With the discovery revealing that high-value nano-material could be made from brown seaweed extract, the duo founded spinout company Mercel. Having appointed Alastair Kennedy as chief commercial officer, the three-strong firm now plans to set up a new base for the company in Fife, to develop the product’s uses and license the technology for wider production.

Mercel has already started testing the innovation as a replacement for synthetic plastics in a range of practical uses – including as a binder for laundry products, a waterproof coating, and a delivery system for medical ingredients.

The firm explained that the material could offer a sustainable substitute to some widely used synthetic chemicals – such as per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), known as ‘forever chemicals’ because of the difficulty and cost in disposing of them. Mercel is currently working with nine companies on 13 different projects to explore real-world applications.

Mark Dorris, Mercel founder and chief technical officer, said, “There are very few ‘eureka’ moments in science – but this was one of them. Coming from industry previously, we had no connections, no money, and no experience of seaweed. At many points we were hanging on by our fingertips. We drunk the last chance saloon dry. We had job offers but decided ‘we can’t let this go’.

“We immediately saw the potential of using brown seaweed cellulose from existing seaweed processing to produce nanocellulose. The seaweed is typically harvested for alginate, which is used mostly as a food thickener, and the cellulose left behind was historically viewed as a waste product.

“We’re aiming this at hidden plastics, binders, thickeners: many of the chemical ingredients you read on the back of a bottle and wonder what they are. They’re hard to replace, but that’s what this can do.

“Regulation on synthetic chemicals is increasingly being tightened, so we are hoping to create something future-proof – as it is completely natural, sustainable, and non-animal in its origin. We want it to be the best choice rather than just being the green option.”

Fiona Mason, head of business engagement and IP commercialisation at Edinburgh Napier University, added, “The climate crisis demands urgent action, and Edinburgh Napier University is committed to playing a role in finding solutions. The creation of Mercel demonstrates our dedication to translating cutting-edge research into real-world applications that can make a tangible difference.

“Mercel’s success is a source of great pride for us, and we commend the devoted research team behind it. Their expertise, passion, and commitment, supported by our skilled Business Engagement and IP team from the Research Innovation and Enterprise Office, have been instrumental in making this happen.”