Dr Leonardo Gomez is a Senior Research Fellow at the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products and Carbohydrates Specialist at the Biorenewables Development Centre, University of York. He works in the field of plant biomass improvement as a renewable feedstock for the production of sustainable biofuels and chemicals.
He specialises in the use of plants as chemical platforms for the production of biorenewable products. He began his career in Argentina, where he held a permanent position as PI funded by the National Research Council. Following a period of three years as a visiting researcher at Rothamsted Research, UK, he moved to the University of York.
Since 2003 he has been working at the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP), where over the last nine years has set up, developed, and currently manages a High Throughput Biomass Analytical Facility, which is central to the cutting-edge research in the field of second-generation biofuels carried out at the CNAP.
He also has the role of Carbohydrate Specialist at the Biorenewables Development Centre, an open-access R&D centre working at the interface between academia and industry to develop, scale-up and help commercialise bio-based products and processes.
My field of interest focuses on using plant and algal biomass as a renewable feedstock to produce sustainable chemicals, polymers, textiles, and biofuels. I work in many aspects of plant biomass conversion into biorenewables in collaboration with academic and agricultural institutions, at the interface between industry and academia.
As the world struggles to reduce carbon emissions, the need to produce sustainable low carbon chemicals, fuels and materials from biomass becomes increasingly urgent, but is challenged by the costs of biomass conversion. Large amounts of sugar and phenolics are locked up in the woody, non-food parts of crops and could be used for renewables production without compromising global food security.
We are using advanced genetic tools to improve the quality of biomass feedstock for biorefining and tailoring effective methods for biomass conversion. We use our knowledge and expertise in studying the major polymeric components of plant biomass to reduce the molecular interactions that contribute to its recalcitrance to enzymatic digestion, and develop effective pre-treatments and enzymes for deconstruction.
To identify the key components of biomass recalcitrance we have developed an automated platform that can help identify genes and biomass features that can be changed to improve biomass processing. We have developed a collaborative network with UK partners and international collaborators from Europe, the US, Brazil, India, Vietnam, Philippines, Argentina, among others, to improve biomass quality and processing in the main crop species across the world.
Brown algal biomass (both wild and farmed) is exploited for food and food ingredients in parts of Asia and Europe, but remains largely unexploited in the UK even though there is a natural abundance and potential for farming.
The use of such seaweed biomass has the potential for developing new low carbon materials without putting pressure on agricultural land, and there are new start-up industries. Research efforts are trying to develop value chains around brown algae in the UK through farming or collection.
More recently, a new driver for the valorisation has emerged with the widespread algal appearance invasion of Sargassum muticum, an invasive brown alga. Alginates are major structural polysaccharides from the cell walls of brown algae and are polymers of acidic sugars.
These projects aim to produce biodegradable, biobased polyesters plastics, fibres and packaging materials derived from algae biomass. We have established an efficient and sustainable protocol to extract and hydrolyse alginates from farmed and invasive brown algae (Saccharina, Laminaria, Saccorhiza and Sargassum), and use different algal fraction to replace unsustainable technologies.
Together with our industrial partners, we are developing a novel, biocatalysed method to produce algae-derived functional polymers, and films for packaging and home care formulations.
Films formed by the crushing of fallen leaves on the railhead in the autumn cause recurrent problems for train operators, reducing adhesion at the wheel/rail interface. In previous studies, we characterised the nature of the films that form on the railhead from crushed leaves, identifying a range of components from the leaves that may be responsible for the low adhesion effects.
These include plant cell wall polysaccharides, tannins and lignin. It seems likely that low adhesion from crushed leaf residues arises either directly from these leaf components, or from their association and reaction with iron from the track and wheels of trains - indeed, we found that the amount of iron increases dramatically in railhead films compared to leaves.
Our proof of concept studies determined that these molecular components could be degraded through the use of enzymes. Moreover, enzyme treatment of films increased traction compared to untreated films in lab-based tribology tests.
At present, we are working to test the effectiveness of enzymes to degrade these materials under field conditions. Digestion of the leaf components responsible for reducing adhesion at the wheel/rail interface should directly alleviate the low adhesion effect and allow the responsible film to be washed away with water.