Generating new resources from biowaste

Vanessa Zeller is an expert in sustainability assessment – and an “Athene Young Investigator”

2021/04/19 by

Dr. Vanessa Zeller is researching how bio-based and recycling-based material cycles can help protect the climate and conserve resources. The Head of the Sustainability Assessment Working Group in the Institute of Material Flow Management and Resource Economy has only been working at TU Darmstadt for a few months but has already successfully applied for funding as an “Athene Young Investigator”.

Dr. Sc. Vanessa Zeller

Nothing seems to phase this young environmental researcher. Since moving to TU Darmstadt in early 2020, Vanessa Zeller is not only the head of a research group in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering Sciences but is also completing her post-doctoral qualification (habilitation) at the same time, while also being the mother of three children and having to overcome the challenges of working from home and home schooling her children during the coronavirus pandemic. There is not much time left to unwind in an armchair after a tiring day as she is usually back working at her desk in the evening. She responds with a smile when asked about these challenges: “I have already got through the most difficult period”, she laughs. She wrote her dissertation while two of her children were still small.

Yet the start to her new job at TU Darmstadt did not go as planned. She was due to take over her new position in Darmstadt in May 2020 but was not able to move from Belgium to Germany until the summer due to the travel restrictions caused by the pandemic. Dr. Zeller had previously worked for eight years as a doctoral candidate and postdoc at the Université Libre de Bruxelles. She moved to Belgium with her husband, who is also a scientist, in 2012 from the German Biomass Research Center in Leipzig. “My aim was to gather international experience”, explains Zeller, who studied environmental sciences in Bielefeld. Her language skills were put to good use at the university in Brussels. “Everything was done in French”, she says. Her lectures, research and PhD supervision meetings were all held in French.

More biomass for the region

Vanessa Zeller has only been able to meet most of her colleagues in Darmstadt in video conferences and digital meetings up to now due to the coronavirus pandemic. Therefore, she is really looking forward to a time when it is possible to meet people in person again. She is delighted with her success in receiving funding as an “Athene Young Investigator” (AYI). “It is fantastic start to my time here”, says the researcher who has been working on her habilitation since July 2020.

Her research focuses on quantifying environmental impacts caused by consumption and production at a regional level and the question of whether and how bioeconomic technologies can be used in a climate friendly way. What carbon footprint do methods based on alternative raw materials leave in comparison to conventional methods? What do waste flows and resource consumption look like? Zeller had already developed an input and output model for evaluating environmental impacts at a regional level for her doctorate. “Macroeconomic models for measuring environmental impacts were previously only available at a national level”, says the environmental scientist.

Macroeconomic models for measuring environmental impacts were previously only available at a national level.

Dr. Sc. Vanessa Zeller
Dr. Sc. Vanessa Zeller

She now works in the Institute of Material Flow Management and Resource Economy. Zeller is currently joint head of the ten-person working group on “sustainability assessment” together with Laura Göllner-Völker. Her main focus is the TransRegBio project that is funded by the German Federal Ministry for Education and Research. The joint project “Transformation analysis and design concepts for a regional bioeconomy” is coordinated by TU Darmstadt. It is part of the BioBall innovation space, which has received around 20 million euros of funding, and aims to accelerate the development of a bio-based economy in the Frankfurt Rhine-Main metropolitan region. The federal ministry is funding four of these innovation spaces across Germany.

Insect populations and garden waste

Zeller and her team are accompanying the FuEuI project (promoting research, development and innovation) and evaluating the innovative technologies and value added chains developed in it. For example, the insect populations that breed in a biowaste recycling project can be used as food for a shrimp farm. In another pilot project, communal garden waste is being used in the production of electrode materials and carboxylic acids.

The scientist plans to use the AYI funding to not only carry out research into bio-based but also recycling-based circular economies in the future. Her aim is to establish a group of young researchers and the AYI will help her achieve this goal. Yet Vanessa Zeller emphasises that “systematic support and regular funding is important for my habilitation”. She plans to complete it within the next three years so that she can apply for a professorship.

In April, TU Darmstadt once again awarded the title of “Athene Young Investigator” to five outstanding young researchers at TU Darmstadt. We will present them to you in this short series of articles.