Artificial webs catch $25k grant

Dr Greg Walker and research assistant Bettina Poller show plants used in a University of Otago...
Dr Greg Walker and research assistant Bettina Poller show plants used in a University of Otago laboratory study offering spider web-like protection. Photo by Gerard O'Brien.

Dr Greg Walker is no Spider-Man, but his research into protecting plants by using tiny biodegradable fibres, like spider webs, has just won him a $25,000 grant.

Dr Walker, a senior lecturer in the University of Otago Pharmacy School, received the funding from KiwiNet's Emerging Innovator Fund to develop the concept further, towards possible commercialisation.

KiwiNet is a consortium of New Zealand universities and Crown agencies which aims to turn science discoveries into commercially viable products.

He was "very happy'' with the grant, which would allow him to build a mobile prototype electrospinning device.

"This will enable us to carry out tests in the field and demonstrate the technology to potential horticulture and cropping industry players. It means we can take this forward really quickly.''

Dr Walker was inspired by nature to develop the spider web-like system to protect plants and crops without using harmful chemicals.

Electro-spun nano-webs are sprayed or draped over the plants like a spider web, but on a smaller scale.

The researchers were "mimicking nature'' because the nano-webs, like spider webs, were not water soluble and were resistant to rain and wind.

The nano-webs are made of food grade polymers that are harmless to humans but slowly release natural bioactive compounds harmful to pests.

This technology offered several key advantages over agricultural sprays: the webs kept the bioactive substance on the plant longer and avoided wasted spray and run-off, thus cutting costs, he said.

Dr Walker's technology could be applied to a large market, given that New Zealand grows produce valued at more than $3.6billion a year.

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