UPR students develop a sargassum-based sunscreen for space missions

A group of students from Río Piedras Campus of the University of Puerto Rico (UPR) seeks to transform the sargasso in a sunscreen to protect astronauts from the extreme conditions in space.

The research is in an initial phase and the students are working to identify the specific compounds or components of sargassum that they will use for sunscreen, explained the PhD student in Chemistry. Angela Cruz Lugowho leads the study, supported by a 2023 grant from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).

During the past years, the POT has been developing the technologies necessary to send humans to Mars in 2030. During the trip, and once they reach the red planet, the astronauts would be exposed to some radiation levels much higher than on Earth.

“There are sunscreens here that only protect us from ultraviolet rays, which are particular to Earth. That’s because we have the ozone layer, which protects us from different types of ultraviolet rays. If we leave the planet Earth“We are going to have other types of ultraviolet rays that those sunscreens are not going to protect us from.”said Cruz Lugo, whose research team is made up of six undergraduate students.

The research team seeks to develop a sargassum-based sunscreen for extreme conditions in space. (Supplied)

Cruz Lugo explained that he decided to focus on sargassum for the creation of sunscreen due to the excess of aquatic vegetation on the coasts of Puerto Rico. The use of sargassum for sunscreens has not been widely studied, but some fats from the seaweed are already used for some cosmetic applications, such as creams and lip balms.

In the tests that the team has done so far, The sunscreen has a greenish tone, since, by removing the sargassum components, the algae pigments are also extracted., pointed out the expert. “It’s something they’re working on now, to see how you can change the color to make it look less greenish,” she added.

The sargassum It is a macroalgae brown floating pond, which serves as a nursery and feeding area for marine species. In recent years, however, the amount reaching the coasts of Puerto Rico has increased significantly, which can represent a problem, since it affects the use of public beaches and recreational activities on the coast, according to the Department of Natural and Environmental Resources (DRNA).

“Sargassum is not as beneficial or does not have as many applications as other algae,” said Cruz Lugo. “That is why, many times, they do not use this algae for these applications, so we want to use it and, at once, Since there is already excess here, we would be creating a circular economy, in which we would already have the raw materials within our reach”he added.

The student’s research is part of the projects of the professor’s Laboratory of Analytical Chemistry and Environmental Nanotechnology Liz Diaz Vazquez, director of the Department of Chemistry at the UPR in Río Piedras. The students’ initiatives, she explained, seek to develop sustainable materials based on different algae, including sargassum.

“We use algae to generate materials, especially nanomaterials, for environmental applications or for the development of sustainable materials”said Díaz Vázquez, who mentioned that research includes the development of biomedical products and materials for the treatment of corals.

Possible use for the general population

Immediately, Cruz Lugo did not offer an exact date for when he would have a final product, since the process, he acknowledged, “is quite long.” After making the sunscreen, he explained, it must go through an approval process from the Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA, in English).

Although the students are developing a sunscreen specifically for space, a product could also be made for conditions on Earth, the student said. The research team, she stated, First, it will seek to develop a base for the sunscreen to “see if it can be functional for us and, then, we would be looking for an application for extreme temperatures.”.

“It is something that will not only be used by space people, since it could become a product that we all need at some point,” Cruz Lugo stressed.

“Not only would we be helping in what is the environment, but we would also be attacking a very strong problem, which is what sunscreens are. “Sunscreens right now have different limitations, since some ingredients are not only harmful to the environment, they are also harmful to humans,” he pointed out.