ENVISION: Oil-water interface characterization

Ever wonder why your salad dressing can be so smooth, even though it is basically made of oil and vinegar? Vinaigrette, like mayonnaise, milk, and ice cream, are examples of what we call emulsions. Commonly used in the pharmaceutical, cosmetics, biotechnology and food industries, emulsions let us enjoy liquid products that feel good to our senses, while at the same time they protect bioactive compounds contained inside the mixture. They are formed by mixing two liquids that do not spontaneously mix (typically oil and water) and stabilized by a surfactant. The behaviour and properties of the surfactant on the border between oil and water determine the stability of emulsions, but the relationship between how the surfactants arrange themselves on the oil droplets and how they stabilize the mixture is still unknown. Our project, called “ENVISION”, is ongoing to provide insights about interfacial properties of emulsions. This project is funded by The Academy of Finland (1.9.2019–31.8.2023), led by Assistant Professor Kirsi Mikkonen, and conducted by Postdoctoral Researcher Thao Minh Ho and Doctoral Student Felix Abik.

In this project, we will be using a technique called atomic force microscopy (AFM). Imagine entering a dark room; your first instinct would be to look for the light switch on the wall by touching it with your hand, feeling the surface until you found the switch. With AFM, we are doing the same thing, but with a much smaller ‘hand’ to ‘touch’ the surface of our emulsions and make an image of what is happening on the droplets. We have successfully investigated trials on the preparation of emulsions with different surfactants. Next steps will be the characterization of the stability of emulsions. This will be followed by development of an innovative method for interfacial characterization using AFM. The result of this project will potentially open new scenarios in manipulating and designing intelligent delivery systems in forms of emulsions, for many bioactive compounds in numerous applications in technology and life sciences.

Photo: Felix and his doctoral thesis committee (who met for the first time just before the COVID-19 outbreak spread in Finland). From left to right: Postdoctoral Researcher Thao Minh Ho, University Researcher Laura Flander, Professor Orlando Rojas (Aalto University), Assistant Professor Kirsi Mikkonen (PI), University Lecturer Marianna Kemell, and Doctoral Student Felix Abik.

Have FUN with OLEOgels! New HiPOC grant for turning oleogels into functional materials

In December 2019, Fabio Valoppi obtained the Proof of Concept grant (HiPOC) from the Helsinki Institute of Life Science (HiLIFE) of the University of Helsinki for his project entitled “Functional oleogels with health enhancing ability (FUN-OLEO)”. Within this project, Fabio and his collaborators are transforming oleogels into novel functional materials using an unusual route.

Oleogels are considered the “fat of the future” and were developed to replace saturated, hydrogenated and trans fats in food products. They contain high fractions of liquid oil (85 – 99.5%) entrapped in a network made of structuring molecules. However, oleogels have some drawbacks that slow down their application in certain type of foods. Fabio came up with a novel concept that could extend oleogels’ applicability to a broader range of food products while introducing a new health enhancing ability: this is how you kill two pigeons with one stone!

The purpose of this HiPOC grant is to accelerate the patenting of Fabio’s novel idea. Unfortunately, we cannot reveal too much about the idea behind the project at this time. We can only say that we already obtained encouraging results! Stay tuned for more updates and to find out how this project will evolve.

New findings on wood extracts and lignin nanoparticles

A recent research article by Maarit Lahtinen et al. sheds new light on the chemical structures that make wood extracts so efficient in emulsion stabilization. Pressurized hot water extracted hemicelluloses, spruce galactoglucomannans (GGM) and birch glucuronoxylans, contain residual lignin. Some of that lignin may be covalently linked with the hemicellulose structures via lignin carbohydrate complexes. Presence of lignin greatly improves the oxidative stability of emulsions.

Mamata Bhattarai et al. studied how spruce GGM behave in water. GGM show tendency to form physical assemblies during storage, meaning that dissolved hemicelluloses associate with each other and form clusters. This behavior depends on pH, so it is important to take into account when designing future products from GGM.

Alkali-extracted lignin precipitates in acidic pH. Melissa Agustin et al. took advantage of this property and developed lignin nanoparticles, with the help of a rapid ultrasonication treatment. The resulting particles were spherical, negatively charged, and very stable in suspensions and emulsions. The underexploited wood components, hemicelluloses and lignin, have promising properties that could be useful in chemicals, pharmaceuticals, and food.

Who wants to be (ERC) millionaire?

The FoMSci group leader, Kirsi Mikkonen, received the prestigious and extremely competitive European Research Council Consolidator Grant (ERC-CoG) for her innovative and challenging project entitled: “Green Route to Wood-Derived Janus Particles for Stabilized Interfaces – PARTIFACE”. The project is about developing a novel type of Janus particles, that are bi-facial particles where the two “faces” of the particle have opposite properties. Imagine an apple, half red and sweet and half green and sour, that is a Janus apple! Kirsi will develop these new particles using renewable resources. Kirsi’s Janus particles will be able to stabilize emulsions from a physical and chemical perspective, meaning that the emulsions will look and smell the same even after months of storage.

The splendid news came in a very cryptic email from the Council. “I got the ERC grant” Kirsi said staring amazed at her phone. The rumor spread in the corridor and everybody started exulting and congratulating Kirsi. This year only five researchers in the whole Finland received this important grant worth two million euros. Kirsi’s ERC project is the first granted to the Faculty of Agriculture and Forestry of the University of Helsinki.

Kudos to Kirsi from all your research group. We are extremely proud of you!


Happy faces at the party for the recently funded Assist. Prof. Kirsi Mikkonen’s ERC-CoG Partiface project.

ERC cake designed and prepared by Ida Nikkilä

Writing retreat in Lammi 7.-9.10.2019

Our previous writing and networking retreat in October 2018 was such an excellently productive and positive experience that again in October 2019, the Food Materials Science Research Group, reinforced with Vice Dean of Research, Prof. Maija Tenkanen and her Carbohydrate Enzymology and Chemistry Group, and the Aalto Protein Team, led by Prof. Emma Master, spent three days at the Lammi Biological Station of the University of Helsinki.

The classroom was reserved for quiet working, where we reached an amazing flow experience for writing. Group meetings, face-to-face or via Skype, and many scientific discussions were held outside of the classroom. Fabio introduced us a modern idea about writing together an article in 24 hours, which we experimented. We enjoyed lively conversations, did a hiking trip to the nearby Evo forest area, picked mushrooms, and tasted them as an evening snack. Of course we enjoyed also delicious meals at breakfast, lunch, coffee breaks and dinner. The food was wonderful, and we could focus all our energy in writing. Evening sauna by the Pääjärvi lake was relaxing, and swimming in the fresh cold water kept our minds clear and sharp.

Summer at FoMSci

We are Elli and Kaisa, food technology masters students, and we were happy to spend the summer working as research assistants at Food Material Science research group. During the summer we worked with different polysaccharides and emulsions. Our research was focused on emulsion stability, and we familiarised ourselves with many different analytical techniques, such as Mastersizer, Turbiscan, and spectrophotometer… The microfluidizer in the processing lab was our best friend during the summer.

Working in this research group was very enjoyable and eye-opening experience. We were able to independently develop our own skills as researchers in planning, executing, and evaluating our experiments. The support system of the team was great, and help was always available when needed. It was especially motivating to work in such an ambitious team, whose focus was on real industrial applications. The topics of utilising side streams and novel emulsion stabilisers are very current in the food materials industry, which motivated us even more. It will be interesting to continue working with this research group alongside our studies and further develop our researcher skills.

HEMISURFing in HELsinki

Well Hello Helsinki and Viikki Campus!

August 15ht, 2019 brought upon an exciting opportunity for the first face-to-face meeting within the SNS Nordic Forest Research project HEMISURF (https://nordicforestresearch.org/sns-127/). Thanks to the immaculate hosting by Kirsi and Mamata, the project got a flying start accompanied by many, many plans on Nordic hemicelluloses. There will be more to come from the consortium: Kirsi Mikkonen, Bjørge Westereng and Tiina Nypelö. Next stop: Gothenburg 2020.

Festive celebration for the Tandem Forest Values projects

The Royal Swedish Academy of Agriculture and Forestry (KSLA) organized their annual Commemorative Meeting at the magnificent City Hall of Stockholm on 28.1.2019. Her Royal Highness, Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden delivered the Academy Awards, including diplomas for the Tandem Forest Values bilateral projects between Sweden and Finland. Assistant Professor Kirsi Mikkonen was happy to represent the ROCK project at this impressive ceremony, which ended with a festive dinner at the splendid golden banquet hall.

German-Finnish collaboration and nanoparticle interactions

Doctoral student Verena Wiedenmann from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology and Max Rubner-Institut in Germany visits the Food Materials Science Research Group from August until mid-December 2018:

‘I am super happy that I had the opportunity to visit the gorgeous city of Helsinki along with learning from the expertise of the Food Materials Science Research Group and meeting all those nice people. I am a PhD-student from Germany and work on the interactions of solid lipid nanoparticles with protein and their influence on protein gel properties. At the University of Helsinki, I produced protein films with incorporated lipid nanoparticles and emulsifiers. I characterized these films regarding their barrier and mechanical properties. During my stay, I learned a lot about the different characterization methods and benefited from the knowledge the people have here. I also got a glimpse of the work of the other group members, as it was very interesting to see what they do in their research. I had the luck to spend 3 ‘writing days’ in Lammi, where I experienced the Finnish sauna and cold-lake-swimming together with a great working ambience. I am really enjoying my time here!’

New Academy of Finland Postdoctoral research project

At the end of May 2018, good news arrived in our group! Fabio Valoppi obtained the Academy of Finland postdoctoral research funding with the project entitled “Acoustic waves as a new tailoring tool for lipid-based oleogels (NEW-WAVE)”. The project is about the development of a new technology able to finely modify the structure of oleogels (hydrogenated and saturated fat substitutes). This project brings in close collaboration the Food Materials Science group, the Food Chemistry research group, the Electronics Research Laboratory, and the Helsinki X-ray Laboratory, as well as establishes new collaborations with the ETH Zurich. More details will come during the next year, after Fabio will start the project (1.9.2018).

The Academy of Finland is an agency within the administrative branch of the Finnish Ministry of Education, Science and Culture, that every year fund high-quality scientific research. In the last Academy of Finland postdoctoral call, a total of 132 proposals were submitted to the Research Council for Biosciences and Environment, of which only 16 were funded.

We wish good luck to Fabio and look forward to touching with our hands the new piece of equipment he will develop.