date and time icon Thu, 11 Apr 2024

Researchers launch seaweed alternative to plastic

Two scientists who discovered they could use seaweed waste to produce a bio-degradable alternative to chemical plastics are taking their technology to the next level – after spinning out from Edinburgh Napier University (ENU).

Mark Dorris and Dominic O'Rourke founded Mercel after realising they could make high-value nanomaterial from brown seaweed extract, with zero waste.

They made the discovery during their research with the Advanced Materials group in ENU’s School of Computing, Engineering & the Built Environment.

Having appointed Alastair Kennedy as Chief Commercial Officer, the three-strong firm are now planning to set up a new base for the company in Fife to develop the product’s uses and license the technology for wider production.

They have already started testing it 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 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 now working with nine companies on 13 different projects to explore real-world applications.

The technology has been tested on sargassum seaweed – which has drawn worldwide headlines for washing ashore in huge quantities from the Atlantic Ocean. 

By spinning out, Mercel joins an impressive list of companies that began life as projects at the University, including the likes of Cyacomb, ZoneFox, and Celtic Renewables.

Last year ENU was named among the UK’s top ten universities for generating spin-out firms by one of Europe’s largest venture capital teams.

Dominic O'Rourke and Mark Dorris, Mercel LtdMark 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 is left behind, 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, said:

“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.”


Pictured are: Fiona Mason, Alastair Kennedy, Mark Dorris and Dominic O'Rourke