Sun, coffee and bacteria
These three ingredients, which for some people equal ‘holiday’, were the subjects of a study pursued by a few EPFL students during the summer in the laboratories of the Universidad del Valle in Cali, Colombia and this, in the framework of the EPFL-UNIVALLE biannual plan.
The Tropics let nobody down and the sun was indeed shining. Hachem Zneidi and GAOX researchers use this inexhaustible source of energy to decontaminate water from a variety of chemical and biological pollutants. The roof terrace has been transformed into an open-air lab where pumps, pipes and mirrors are piling up with a view to developing various treatments which allegedly have the advantage of being very energy-efficient and therefore rather inexpensive.
Yahya Benzarti is typing on a keyboard; not exactly a travelogue but rather statistical methods which make it possible to classify coffee according to its species, variety and even origin. DAMRN researchers have indeed enhanced an expert system which draws up a profile of each coffee sample by way of nuclear magnetic resonance in an entirely automated manner. Yahya’s task is to process this huge amount of data – online and in a transparent way – so as to generate automatic reports for Almacafé, the entity in charge of monitoring Colombian coffee sold worldwide.
The four remaining students – Natasa Stojanovic, Quentin Cabrol, Gael Grosh and Gabriel Laupre – focused on bacteria. As opposed to the ones which ruin our holidays, those are under control in a bioreactor, the sole environment in which they are willing to fulfil their obligations: fix the nitrogen contained in water in the form of ammonium salt or nitrates, among others, and to release it in the form of gaseous N2. These salts, used massively by local industries and for agriculture, are slowly asphyxiating rivers and streams and their fauna. Their mission: creating a completely automated bioreactor prototype capable of determining what are the optimal conditions for anammox bacteria – a project that may take up months.
For several years, the biannual plan set up by EPFL and the Universidad del Valle - UNIVALLE (Cali, Colombia)— has set the stage for collaborations between research groups from both Switzerland and Colombia. In addition to this ‘seed’ contribution brought by EPFL and UNIVALLE, these projects were supported by various Colombian institutions as well as by the FNS and the Agency for Development and Cooperation in Switzerland for a total amount of about CHF 3 million. This has led to the completion of many PhDs in both countries as well as joint publications in those leading scientific journals that focus on the topics addressed.
It is against this background that a large number of researchers, young and not so young, jointly endeavour to offer innovative solutions to ongoing issues, in particular that of water contamination, but also that of access to high-tech IT tools. These collaborations are created, maintained and may change over time, yet they are always based on the willpower and availability of those who believe in research for all. In all cases, these exchanges lead to unforgettable and formative professional experiences. In the report above, we described the experience of 6 EPFL students travelling to Colombia, and as you read these lines, 3 students from Cali are sharing the life of the EPFL campus, as though science knew no borders!