Ailen Florencio Soto (ESR12)

My PhD journey through environmental technologies to build up future biorefineries

Hey there, curious minds and fellow adventurers! This is my turn to share with you some insights about my PhD journey. During the last years I’ve been diving into different European labs located in Spain, France and Portugal in pursuit of building knowledge to develop a more sustainable future. As an environmental engineer and avid volleyball player coming from the amazing landscapes of Argentina, my journey through the world of biorefineries has been truly exciting.

Picture the enchanting city of Seville: my PhD journey started here. Imagine a process that can extract valuable metals from waste without relying on harmful chemicals. That’s where anaerobic digestion steps in, offering an eco-friendly alternative to traditional chemical methods. During my work in Seville I explored the potential of anaerobic digestion for metals leaching. By tweaking certain parameters within these magical digesters, I found out that metals hidden within organic waste could be leached out through this natural process. This is not only a low-cost technology but also implies cutting down on toxic waste emissions.

The next challenge was figuring out how to recover these metals from the anaerobic digestates for use in other industrial processes. This quest led me to the beautiful city of Paris, where I teamed up with bacteria that have the ability to use urea, a waste animal product, to precipitate metals in crystal form. The results? Mind-blowing. Not only did the microbes enhance the metal recovery process, but they also showed their resilience by performing even under challenging conditions.

Once the metals were successfully recovered from the waste, a new question emerged: Could the water from anaerobic digestates be purified and used in food production? This question brought me to Porto, where I explored the potential of constructed wetlands – engineered systems that mimic natural environments, known for their awesome water purification capabilities without the need of high energy inputs nor frequent mantainance. My focus expanded beyond water quality to understanding how the use of this purified water could impact microbial communities in soils and crops.

As I near the end of my PhD journey, I would like to reflect on the path that has led me here. It hasn’t always been easy, with the challenges of being an ocean far from family and friends, and adapting to different countries and topics of study. However, the support of the communities I’ve built along the way, combined with my determination and passion for research, have kept me going.

Before I conclude, I’d like to share a few words of encouragement for those who are on their own PhD journey, considering starting one or simply charting their life’s course. Your dreams are like guiding stars, leading you forward. Trust in your abilities, embrace your unique qualities, and invest your heart and soul into your projects. Surround yourself with a supportive community because their presence can be a guiding light during tough times. And always remember to take care of yourself – your journey is fueled by your own energy and well-being. May you find the courage to follow your aspirations, explore new horizons, and let your creativity flourish!

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