Pamela Sierra Garcia, Gerdau Graphene: The search for knowledge brings new perspectives

In this Women in Composites interview we meet Pamela Sierra Garcia, a senior researcher with Gerdau Graphene. She discusses her move from academia to industry and why organisations embracing innovation and diversity offer a good environment for female researchers.

Pamela Sierra Garcia, Gerdau Graphene: The search for knowledge brings new perspectives

4 minutes, 30 secondes

Choosing a career was somewhat difficult for Pamela Sierra Garcia as she has always been interested in different subjects, including biology, chemistry, and physics. She decided to study chemistry at the University of São Paulo (USP), Brazil.

“I believe that my curiosity for understanding how things work, from their atomic scale, made me choose chemistry. During my degree I got in contact with different types of research that were carried out within the university, from basic to more applied research. And from this I began to envision the possibility of one day being able to transfer knowledge from the university to industry. That’s how my journey started.”

She went on to complete an MSc and PhD in Nanoscience and Advanced Materials at the Federal University of ABC (UFABC), Brazil. This united the two subjects she was most interested in.

“It was the opportunity to direct my studies in materials chemistry to providing solutions for environmental problems. I included, as a challenge, the study of post-consumer polymers and the possibility of reintroducing them into the production chain. One of the projects I participated in focused on the recycling of waste tyres, using microwave devulcanisation, and their insertion into post-consumer polypropylene to produce polymer blends with improved mechanical properties, such as increased impact resistance.”

After graduating, Pamela stayed in the academic world as a researcher at the Polytechnic School of the University of São Paulo (USP) and her first projects on composites came about.

“The focus of the projects was to work with natural polymers (natural rubber) using biomass waste as a reinforcing filler. In one of the studies, biochar was produced from sugarcane bagasse. The intention was to study the possibility of replacing carbon black, a reinforcing filler widely used in elastomeric materials, with biochar. Another study was the production of nanocellulose and its use in elastomeric materials.”

Harnessing the potential of graphene

A new chapter in Pamela’s career commenced in 2019, when she received an offer to work at Mackgraphe (Brazil), a research, development and innovation institute specialised in graphene and two-dimensional materials. And in 2022, she joined Gerdau Graphene, which is working to transform graphene into high-quality, high-performance products with competitive gains in various sectors. Gerdau Graphene, established in 2019, is part of Gerdau Next, a division of Brazilian steel producer Gerdau, with the mission of diversifying Gerdau’s portfolio.

“This was the opportunity I always wanted. Being able to work in a new nanotechnology company, especially in my country, made me even more excited. It would be the first time that I could apply all the knowledge acquired during my years in academia to produce and industrialise new materials.”

Pamela with Valdirene Peressinotto, head of R&D at Graphene Week in Sweden in September 2023.

Today, Pamela is a senior researcher and leader in the Polymer Group at Gerdau Graphene. The focus of her research is to develop graphene-enhanced polymer masterbatches (graphene additives) for various industrial applications.

“What I really enjoy most in my work is participating in the entire process of introducing nanotechnology (with the use of graphene) into commodity polymers, such as plastic packaging,” she says.

One example is the use of a graphene-enhanced polyethylene masterbatch called PolyG, produced by Gerdau Graphene, to create more sustainable packaging. This has been successfully tested in packaging for Gerdau’s steel nail products.

“During the filling process of nail packages, many of them were punctured and then discarded. By adding a small amount of PolyG – approximately 1% – to polyethylene during the production of polyethylene packages we produced films that are stronger than their conventional pure polyethylene counterparts. Moreover, it was possible to reduce the thickness of the packages by 25% and to obtain an impressive 39% decrease in packaging punctures during the filling process. As a result, less polyethylene resin was required in the package production, reducing packaging weight and the volume of nail packages being discarded due to damage. According to the company, these factors led to a reduction in manufacturing and transportation costs.”

In September 2023, this project led to Gerdau Graphene winning the silver award for Best Packaging of the year in the Technology category at the Brazilian Packaging Association (ABRE) awards.

Pamela and her colleagues at the ABRE awards.
Pamela and her colleagues at the ABRE awards.
Pamela and her colleagues at the ABRE awards.

A better environment for female researchers

Pamela appreciates the culture of open innovation at Gerdau Graphene.

“I believe there is a difference in the focus of the research in universities and in industry. At university, researchers have more freedom to study different subjects. In industry, this depends on market demand. However, Gerdau Graphene is thankfully a different company regarding that. As we work with the development of graphene-enhanced polymer masterbatches (in thermoplastics, elastomers, and thermosets), mainly aiming at their use to produce sustainable products, we, the researchers at Gerdau Graphene, can work on a wide range of projects in an open innovation ecosystem. The aim of open innovation is to work in partnership with ICTs (Institutes of Science and Technology) in order to exchange experience between researchers and accelerate the production of graphene additives for industrial applications.”

A focus on diversity also benefits female researchers.

“I believe that I am participating as one of the first generations of women researchers in the polymer industry, even more so in a leadership position. Nowadays, thankfully, the challenges I face are of a professional nature. This is because Gerdau Graphene is a company focused on diversity. But working in the research area as a woman is always a challenge, as I know that the market, in general, prefers to hire men.”

Even when faced with challenges, Pamela has continued to focus on learning, and she encourages other women to do the same.

“The best professional advice I had was to always seek my qualifications, knowing that I would have to face challenges, including for being a woman. I maintain this same directive because the search for knowledge brings new perspectives to everything. What I can offer as advice is the certainty that the business environment is changing. Companies no longer tolerate prejudice and I believe it is a good time to seek our place in the field.”

More information www.gerdaugraphene.com