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Industrial Innovations at the Delft Botanic Garden

Number 14 - November 2006

Bob Ursem, Scientific Director

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Botanic Gardens traditionally collect plants for display as well as the understanding and documenting of plant diversity, plant conservation and for education. In addition to these, the Delft University of Technology Botanic Garden is also looking for new ways of using plants in industry.

During the last five years, many new lines of study have been successfully initiated. In this overview, we hope to encourage other Botanic Gardens to join us in this new approach to botany in the applied sciences.

The Delft Botanic Garden has had recent success in biochemistry, biophysics, biocomposites and sustainable solutions in building or civil engineering, all applications which have previously attracted little attention.  

Curing Cancer, Saving Threatened Yew 

Taxus brevifolia can now be harvested sustainably

The natural source of taxol, the Pacific yew tree (Taxus brevifolia) is a threatened species, and one of the slowest growing trees in the world. Isolation of the compound, which is contained in the bark, normally involves killing the tree, and the quantities available by this method are pitifully small. It would take six 100-year old trees to provide enough taxol to treat just one patient. The new techniques developed at Delft allows harmless extraction of the compound in quanitity.

More about Taxol 

Plant components, recent research has involved using high voltages in the vicinity of plants. Plants with narrow and pointed leaves or needles from conifers were placed in powered fields of several kilovolts. In the enforced electrostatic field, plant liquids started to diffuse from the internal cells via the stomata and flow along the surface to the very tip of the leaf or needle. Many important particles are also carried in the plant liquids. At the tip, these components are hydrodynamically atomized and released as small particles to the air, moving in the electric field towards the receiver. Many secondary metabolites, such as the precursors of Taxol®, can be harvested in this easy manner. The Electrostatic Hydrodynamic Atomization of plant liquids has been recently secured in a patent.

Self-Cleaning Windows from Lotus Wax

A different approach in plant component research has focused on waxes. Wax from Nelumbo nucifera, a beautiful lotus flower, has been successfully studied in the Botanic Garden of the University of Bonn, and resulted in a self-cleaning coating for windows.

The Delft University of Technology Botanic Garden built further on this phenomenon and studied the complex components of waxes.

UV-Proofing - A Major Industrial Breakthrough 

Plants have given us a biological UV filterThis led to the discovery that plant waxes contain a sustainable bio-based UV filter. Plant waxes contain complex components that incorporate UV radiation and transfer this harmful and biological deadly UV wavelength into blue light, while remaining chemically intact.

The use of this new phenomenon in several applications in industry has now been patented. Its implications for industry are enormous, and include new products, such as: sustainable solar power cells, non-degrading synthetics, long life paint, lasting latex, hard-wearing bitumen, and durable satellites to name but a few.

New sensor technologies may also be possible. In November 2005, this new bio-based UV filter was recognized as the best new venture innovation of 2005 in The Netherlands, winning in the category “Sensor Technology Innovations” 2005.

Self-Healing Plants Bring Funding to Botanic Garden 

Our most recent work is in research and development into self-healing materials. Last year, the Delft Garden has had two proposals accepted, to develop technologies around self-healing processes in plants. Self-healing materials are of great importance, for instance as covers in the building industry.

Since November 2005, Delft Garden has been a full partner in the Research School of Delft Center of Materials, for which, in January 2006, Delft University of Technology received nine million Euros funding over a period of four years from the Dutch Government. This was supplemented with one million Euros by the University itself. Results will be presented at the 3rd Global Botanic Gardens Congress in Wuhan, China, in 2007.

Building a Greener Future

Beside material development, the Delft Botanic Garden is strongly involved in the MSc. programs of the Faculty of Building. In 2005, a new public park in Sao Paulo, Brazil, was established in cooperation with the Delft Garden.

This park was designed as a MSc. study at the Faculty of Building and includes among other things a semi- subterranean parking garage with an arboretum on the roof, integrating the building smoothly with the rest of the landscape.

Furthermore, a helophyte filter of plants ending in a large swimming and recreation pond was created. The public gardens also include several displays of endangered forest types from the vicinity of Sao Paulo. The population of Sao Paulo has no access to wildlife areas around the city. With the incorporation of these displays in the public park, we hope to promote conservation awareness and support the maintenance of these natural forests.

This unique project could only be established by the cooperation between the Delft Garden and the Delft Faculty of Building.  

Taming Tsunamis 

The Delft Garden also cooperates on several topics in civil engineering. In June 2004, the Garden, in cooperation with the Section Coastal Engineering of the Faculty of Civil Engineering, finished a study on wave patterns and wave characteristics in Mangrove forests (species for example: Rhizophora, Sonneratia, Bruguira and Ceriops), and calculated the minimum area and -density of mangrove forest needed to break up waves, tidal waves, billows and torrents.

In December of the same year, several natural coastal defenses of mangroves protected parts of the mainland when the famous Boxing Day tsunami struck. It turned out that the calculations made during the project had forecast very accurately the outcomes and the importance of mangroves in coastal defense. The team are now focusing on how to encourage the growth of young mangroves as a low cost natural coastal defense. 

Defending Dikes 

The Delft Garden, together with the Water and Water-Management University of Hanoi, Vietnam, and the Section Coastal Engineering at Delft, is currently researching the use of a grass, Vetiveria zizanoides, for breaking swells against dikes and for the stabilization of banks along rivers and canals.

Because dikes cannot simply be made higher and higher, and in the light of concerns about global warming, combined with increasing activity along Vietnam's canals, the necessity of protecting dikes from swells and erosion will become an increasingly important issue.

Ships and boats in rivers and canals create sucking waves and damage banks severely. Initial research on the roots of Vetiveria growing on natural clay banks show a very good stability. Further research is needed for other applications and possible similar solutions in the temperate region.

Underwater 'Butterfly' Islands to Control Wave Action

A new approach to coastal defense is the use of eel-grass, Zostera marina, and several species of seaweeds, such as sea-lettuce, Ulva lactuca, and purple seaweed, Porphyra umbilicalis.  Butterfly-shaped underwater ‘islands’ create upwelling systems that provide a perfect surf swell at the seashore.

Such an ideal surf swell gives pleasure to surfers, but also provides possibilities to understand the mechanisms of wave motion. It also points to the control of energy and movement of seawater at greater distances from the coast. A further study on the use of submerged plants in patterns and movements of seawater is beginning at the Delft Botanic Gardens with a view to learning how to control waves for better future coastal defense.

Cleaning Up Toxic Waste  

Eichhornia crassipes

 In the case of water hyacinth, beauty is much more than
skin deep. This plant can absorb toxic heavy metals, thus
providing a very economical way to clean up polluted water

In addition to these examples of Civil Engineering programs, the Delft Garden has MSc. studies on water pollution. This program is in full cooperation with the UNESCO Water Resource Institute in Delft.

Water plants, such as water hyacinth, Eichhornia crassipes, water lettuce, Pistia stratiotes and papyrus, Cyperus papyrus, are known to resist and survive high concentrations of heavy metals (Zinc, Copper, Mercury and others), which are a major problem in wastewater in developing countries.

The MSc. studies focus on the uptake of the contamination by the plant, and the optimizing of storage. Such plants provide an inexpensive solution, especially in lakes and non-flowing waters. Together with the Delft Faculty of Civil Engineering, a cheap harvest installation has been created. This can be placed on a boat and runs on the wind, picks the water hyacinths and water lettuce by a grasping cogwheel and dumps them in a sieve. The plants are sun-dried, burned and processed as chemical waste. Graduates apply and use this knowledge and approach in their home countries afterwards.  

Mathematical Modelling 

People will rarely connect a Botanic Garden with a Faculty of Computer Sciences and Mathematics. Delft has initiated research on the growth of plants as the basis of multi-layered computerised growth programmes.

Computerised growth programmes will give an insight into several problems in industry, such as the movement and filling of liquids, or solidification processes in still moving - or further dividing - systems.

For example, a matrix of a ship has to be filled by vacuum injection with glass fibres together with an epoxy. The epoxy has to fill the processed glass fibres without producing voids or fibre clusters. A multi-layered computerised growth programme can also provide an insight into the natural growth of nutmeg plants in Delft and be tested as such in mathematical patterns based on Fibonacci patterns.

Join the Revolution

I hope to encourage and stimulate many colleagues to initiate one or more research topics of their own, and that more projects in applied sciences and biotechnology can be established in the near future. We‘re open to all possible ideas and cooperation!

I think that Botanic Gardens can play an important and crucial role in a new era of biotechnological development, revolution in sustainable engineering and initiating new industries in the next future.

The key is to make links in unexpected places. Botanic gardens have a lot to offer - you just have to initiate the contact. 

We‘ve just got started… hope you do too!

Drs. Ing. Bob Ursem
Botanic Garden Delft University of Technology
Faculty of Applied Sciences
Julianalaan 67 NL - 2628 BC Delft
The Netherlands
T 00 31 15 278 93 96
F 00 31 15 278 23 55


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