Coconut jelly: You eat it, you make desserts, and you make a sponge for removing oil spills with it. 

We spoke with Dr. Supree Pinitsoontorn (Dew), a material scientist and lecturer at Khon Kaen University, and the winner FameLab Thailand 2020, on the FameLab experience and how his research proved that coconut jelly could be transformed into a carbon sponge that absorbs oil spills in wastewater. 

The problem of oil spills in Thailand

Oil spills in Thailand can be commonly seen in the ocean, river, natural water resources, industrial sites, hotels, and restaurants. Riverside dwellers, in particular, dispose dishwash and cooking wastewater into the river. This contaminates water resources and impacts the ecosystem downstream. This issue not only contributes to water pollution in Thailand, but rather is a global concern.  A simple solution to get rid of oil spills is to burn them, but this creates air pollution instead. 

My aspiration is to find a better way to deal with this by using absorbent. Paper and sponges, while widely used, are limited as they absorb both water and oil, and paper gets crumbled easily. Thus, I determine to find the best material that specifically absorbs oil and does not get crumbled over times. Many research findings showed that carbon is great at absorbing oil and not water. So, to enhance this absorbing capacity, we apply nanotechnology to create foaming interior scattered with many tiny air tunnels, increasing surface area for better sorption. 

How is your research different to others? 

There are plenty of research around the globe on this issue. Any burnt materials are considered carbon. But for my research, I chose bacterial cellulose in coconut, so called “coconut jelly.” I chose it because coconut jelly can be mass produced in Thailand for upscaling, and the jelly fibres are naturally nano scale. Now, this project is still at laboratory scale, but I do hope to upscale its production to utilise its full potential in real natural water resources.

How did you decide to join FameLab?

I came across FameLab several years ago when the British Council visited Khon Kaen University and showed previous year FameLab records. At that time, I thought I had the potential (and could have done it better!) but made an excuse not to. I thought if I was younger, I would’ve been more confident, but now as lecturer, I feared I’d be ashamed of myself if I can’t present well. So, I decided to give it a try this year. And if I’m determined, I must try my best no matter how others think.

And how did you find it after joining? 

Just at audition and it was much more difficult than I thought! A three-minute presentation took way more than 3 days to prepare. The difficult part was to tailor out the content. In normal writings, there’s no limit to numbers of words. A concise and thorough writing is more challenging than a narrative writing. I didn’t know much about communication techniques, so for my VDO audition clip, I used a very long script and rushed it in under three minutes. I confess that was tiring. 

Especially this year, there were more virtual sessions which I find it quite unfamiliar with because I am not used to speak solely to the camera than to speak in front of the crowd. Both of them, however, are exciting in their own ways.

How did FameLab change your view of science communications?

It’s definitely important. As a researcher who bids for research funds, I must clearly communicate to the funders and policy makers on how crucial my research is and why my project should be selected. For example, this “oil spills” problem and research, some might think don’t sweat the small stuff. But I must demonstrate effectively that a small problem of millions can snowball to great environmental damage. 

For more information about FameLab, visit