Collaboration: How a corn cob catalyst fueled a trip around the world

Organic Chemistry researcher has a new idea for a technology that turns garbage into gold.


Rafael Luque (right) and Rick Arneil Aracon at a conference in Hong-Kong, where they presented their findings
Rafael Luque (right) and Rick Arneil Aracon at a conference in Hong-Kong, where they presented their findings

Rick Arneil Arancon was studying Organic Chemistry in the Southern Philippines when he had the idea for a technology that basically turns garbage into gold. This idea – and the man he met when he discussed it on ResearchGate – took him halfway around the world.

Rick, you say that you want to make a difference and be a teacher someday. Why did you study chemistry to do this?

Studying chemistry or the sciences actually came as a form of rebellion against my parents. They wanted me to take business courses because they believed that would mean “better job opportunities.”

For the first semester of college, I took math as a major, but switched to chemistry shortly after. My appreciation for chemistry started when I learned intermolecular forces and their amazing role in dictating many properties of matter. Eventually my parents accepted my choice too and supported me in every way possible.

While you were studying at Xavier University in the Philippines you came up with a technology that smartly combines recycling and renewable energy production. How did you get the idea?

Our seminar teacher asked us to think of a project that included a social dimension. So I thought it would be good to create something that involved recycling, and conversion of waste materials into more valuable products. At first I considered the conversion of waste oils into biodiesel using a more traditional method.

One afternoon though, when I was desperately searching for some literature, I came across a paper discussing the conversion of sugar and other carbohydrates into carbon catalysts. With corn being a very common afternoon snack in our household, I was aware of the very durable structure of its cob. So I just connected the dots – convert the corn cobs into something useful like a carbon catalyst – and use that to convert waste oil into biodiesel.

You teamed up with other researchers for the project. How so, and what became of the collaboration?

I asked questions about methods for my project in ResearchGate’s Q&As. Dr. Rafael Luque (Rafa) replied to several of them. We started emailing and I asked him never-ending questions about carbonization, functionalization, and biodiesel synthesis. Simply put, Rafa quickly became my second mentor. We collaborated (together with my teacher in the Philippines) and because my university did not have some of the equipment I needed, I sent my samples to Spain for tests. We also published a paper together in the end.

Rafa has become an excellent lab and life mentor to me. He is pushy, but not so much, just enough to take away the lazy bug in you. He strongly believes that a relaxed student is a productive student. He treats all his students as scientists who are also learning with him. My relationship with him is the perfect mix of a professional and personal relationship every student-teacher should have.

What’s your plan now, are you going to commercialize the catalyst?

Commercializing the corn cob catalyst is still a long shot, but I think it should be headed in that direction. It has an acidic and mesoporous surface similar to products already on the market. My biodiesel conversion experiments also showed very good catalytic activities, also comparable or even better to other catalysts.
But for now I’m concentrating on my academic career. Right after finishing my undergraduate studies, I applied as a Teaching Assistant at the Ateneo de Manila University where I almost finished my Masters degree. Due to financial and family pressures, I had to move out of the country right before I was about to start my thesis. Rafa helped me to get a job in Hong Kong and I also worked with him here in Spain as a research assistant. Now I applied for a fellowship in Grenoble to continue the second year of my Masters.

And what’s your long-term plan?

I see myself as a teacher/mentor – whether as a teacher to young kids, to teenagers, or to adults, I still do not know. During my stay in Ateneo de Manila, I was given the opportunity to teach some students and handle lab classes. I consider this teaching experience as one of my most formative moments as a person and as a scientist.

Thank you for the interview, Rick.