Lucy Hughes, a University of Sussex (UK) student invents award-winning plastic alternative made of organic marine waste.
- Globally, it is estimated that 40% of plastic produced for packaging is used just once and then discarded.
- In 1950, the world’s population of 2.5 billion produced 1.5 million tonnes of plastic; in 2016, a global population of more than 7 billion people produced over 320 million tons of plastic. That’s equivalent to the weight of more than 800,000 Eiffel Towers.
- The majority of bio- and compostable plastics are not generally suited to existing waste treatment infrastructures.
This year marked the 15th year of the James Dyson Award, and the 15th year of championing ground-breaking concepts in engineering and design. This year, the award has also seen its highest number of female entrants in the Award’s history across all 27 participating nations.
Today we announce this year’s international James Dyson Award winner, 24-year-old Lucy Hughes from the University of Sussex (UK). Lucy attempts to solve the problem of both single-use plastics and inefficient waste streams by harnessing fish offcuts to create a unique plastic alternative, MarinaTex.
MarinaTex is a bioplastic made of organic fish waste ordinarily destined for landfill or incineration and locally sourced red algae. It is a translucent and flexible sheet material, making it ideal for applications in single-use packaging. While it may look and feel like plastic, its similarities end there. Using a unique formula of red algae to bind the proteins extracted from fish waste, MarinaTex has strong overlapping bonds giving it strength and flexibility. The material is relatively resource-light, requiring little energy and temperatures under 100 degrees to produce. It biodegrades after four to six weeks, is suitable for home composting and does not leach toxins, removing the need for its own national waste management infrastructure. As MarinaTex uses byproducts from the fishing industry, it helps to close the loop of an existing waste stream for a more circular product lifespan. According to Lucy, one Atlantic cod could generate as much organic waste as is needed for making 1,400 bags of MarinaTex.
Sir James Dyson, Founder, said: “Young engineers have the passion, awareness and intelligence to solve some of the world’s biggest problems. The James Dyson Award received some thought-provoking ideas this year – and more female entrants than ever – making the judging very difficult. Ultimately, we decided to pick the idea the world could least do without. MarinaTex elegantly solves
two problems: the ubiquity of single-use plastic and fish waste. Further research and development will ensure that MarinaTex evolves further, and I hope it becomes part of a global answer to the abundance of single use plastic waste.”
Unwanted offcuts from the fish processing industry creates a huge waste stream. These offcuts compromise of offal, blood, crustacean and shellfish exoskeletons and fish skins and scales – the bits that end up in landfill rather than on our plates. Through extensive research, Lucy found that fish skins and scales were the most promising materials to form the basis of a bioplastic as they contain strong and flexible protein structures.
In order to allow these proteins to attach to one another to create a brand new material, Lucy set about finding an organic binder. Keen to keep the solution local in order to reduce transportation, she looked to the coastline on her doorstep, experimenting with different organic marine binders but finally settling on agar. It took over 100 different experiments to refine the material and process, most of which she did on the kitchen stove in her student accommodation. She finally created a consistent and plastic-like material that was both biodegradable and translucent, MarinaTex.
Lucy says: “Plastic is an amazing material, and as a result, we have become too reliant on it as designers and engineers. It makes no sense to me that we’re using plastic, an incredibly durable material, for products that have a life-cycle of less than a day. For me, MarinaTex represents a commitment to material innovation and selection by incorporating sustainable, local and circular values into design.
I’m so delighted that MarinaTex has been recognised by the James Dyson Award. The invention is still in its infancy and I never thought it would make it to this stage, so it’s really encouraging to have the potential of the material acknowledged by such a prestigious award. I’m excited to now have the chance to undertake further research and development to explore all of the possible uses of MarinaTex, taking into account form, function and its footprint.”
As international winner of the James Dyson Award, Lucy will receive £30,000. Lucy aims to commercialise her invention sustainably, using her award money for further research into how MarinaTex can become a global answer to the abundance of plastic waste while still harnessing local solutions.
 Geyer, R (2018) University of California, Santa Barbara. Available at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/news/2018/05/plastics-facts-infographics-ocean-pollution/
 Surfers Against Sewage (2019) The Problem with Plastic Pollution. Available at: https://www.sas.org.uk/our-work/plastic-pollution/plastic-pollution-facts-figures/
 The Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (2019), Compostable Food Packaging, London: The Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. Available at: https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/POST-PN-0606.
The Runners Up
Afflo, Anna Bernbaum, Dyson School of Dyson Engineering, Imperial College London (UK)
Problem: Asthma is a condition that makes breathing difficult in response to external triggers. Matching triggers to individuals’ symptoms is problematic, currently done by trial and error. The World Health Organization estimates 235 million people of all ages currently suffer from asthma. An estimated 26 million of whom are in the United States, according to the Center for Disease Control and prevention. After interviewing patients at leading London (UK) hospital and conducting an online survey, Anna found that the major gap in asthma management today is trigger identification.
Solution: Afflo is an AI-enabled wearable device that monitors asthmatic symptoms and predicts triggers, allowing users to make data driven decisions about their asthma management. Afflo collects respiratory audio signals through a specialised microphone and pairs this with environmental information – collected through a sensor bundle for local factors and online sources for macro level data. The system can predict each patient’s unique trigger pattern, and a machine learning algorithm analyses the two streams of data in the cloud. The results are presented back to the user through the Afflo app, allowing them to make lifestyle decisions and minimise future symptoms. Over time, this data can be reviewed by medical professionals remotely, to cost effectively refine treatment plans.
 World Health Organisation (2019) Asthma. Available at: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/asthma
Gecko Traxx, Ryan Tilley, RMIT University, Melbourne (Australia)
Problem: There are about 620,000km of coastline across the globe and over one-third of the total human population, nearly 2.4bn people lives within 100km of an oceanic coast. But, coastlines remain mostly inaccessible to manual wheelchair users, so to solve this problem this year’s Australian national James Dyson Award winner Ryan Tilley invented Gecko Traxx.
Solution: Gecko Traxx is a portable and affordable manual wheelchair accessory that enables off-road access. The unique tyre cross-section is unobtrusive when fitted to the wheelchair and expands when in contact with the ground, increasing the contact surface area by three times when needed. The simple, integrated clip can be used even with limited dexterity and enables the individual to fit the tyres to their wheelchair independently without the need to transfer out of the wheelchair.
James Dyson Award
The competition is open to student inventors with the ability and ambition to solve the problems of tomorrow. Winning solutions are selected by Sir James Dyson and show ingenuity, iterative development and commercial viability. With students from 27 nations now competing, the award is set to welcome new approaches to a broader range of global issues than ever before. To help finalists to develop and commercialise their novel idea, each year the overall winner is awarded £30,000, and winners in each participating region receive £2,000. Unlike other competitions, participants are given full autonomy over their intellectual property.
The James Dyson Award forms part of a wider commitment by Sir James Dyson, to demonstrate the power of engineers to change the world. The Dyson Institute of Engineering and Technology, the James Dyson Foundation and James Dyson Award embody a vision to empower aspiring engineers, encouraging them to apply their theoretical knowledge and discover new ways to improve lives through technology. Since the competition first opened fifteen years ago, James Dyson has contributed over £100m to boundary-breaking concepts in education and other charitable causes.
 NASA (2019) Living Ocean. Available at: https://science.nasa.gov/earth-science/oceanography/living-ocean/