We can’t literally make money out of thin air yet. However, it has recently become real to produce paper out of fallen leaves. Last year, the project of a pupil from the Zakarpattia region became known not only in Ukraine. Nevertheless, he didn’t go overseas even though he had many opportunities. Today, Valentyn Frechka is a freshman, he is developing now his invention. Frechka believes: time is the most valuable resource.
The story of the pupil’s invention is impressive: Frechka managed to produce paper out of fallen leaves. This paper is as solid and has the same structure as an ordinary paper. TV shows, interviews, supportive posts in social media – it seemed to be the high time to overween and be in the sun. But it is not like that: Vanelntyn writes me back within minutes and we arrange for a meeting to make the interview you can read now.
My life always reminded me of a film
“I always liked different mysteries, riddles, so everything around me always pushed me to study and solve them. I was always fond of nature, the universe, life. Once, my parents bought me a telescope. I started to spend virtually all days and night on my roof. Then, I got a microscope, books, different literature which only deepened my interest. At home, I tried to grow plants from tropical and equatorial areas. I did quite well. I still do it from time to time. Then, I started to learn Science, Chemistry, Biology at school. I found out that I could take part in different academic completions and actually do some scientific projects. I was always supported by my parents, my teacher Mrs Olha and my best friends even despite all my crazy ideas,” a young inventor tells about his first steps.
Once, Valentyn was taking part in some academic competition where he presented his old project; he managed to take the third place. But medal place wasn’t the main thing Frechka got in the competition. He was advised by scientists to start another, more powerful project. The first thing the inventor read about after he came come was an article about producing paper from non-wood cellulose which is very popular. The main question was about materials: he could take straw but it had already been done before him. Science doesn’t like laziness but what it doesn’t like even more, perhaps, is plagiarism.
“One day, my grandpa and I went mushrooming. I paid my attention to fallen leaves. I realised they had a similar to straw and grass structure. But the key point is cellulose. I put fallen leaves into a small bag and started to conduct experiments at a lab. Actually, this is how I made up the idea which I am still developing, and which seems to be boundless,” Valentyn says.
For the first time, Frechka presented the project in one of the academic competitions. Then, he left for Tunis where he got first feedback. Then, he won an ecological competition in Kenia. Later, Valentyn presented the most powerful version of the technology in the USA.
“I realised that it was the reason for my existence when I was holding the first piece of paper I produced! I changed – for sure. I became more critical to everything, I put in question any information if it doesn’t have fact proofs. I haven’t overweened, vice versa, I made new friends. And keep on making. Due to all these achievements, I have got my first work, I am very happy about that. Of course, I’ve got many responsibilities, people believe in me. I have committed to developing the project, and all people who support me are looking forward to new steps,” Baletyn says.
The inventor says that the project, which will turn 2 years in March, is being developed in high gear. The technology has been changed and elaborated several times. If a new conception couldn’t provide necessary economic numbers, Valentyn just gave this conception up and started to look for new variants. For a financial issue is one of the key points.
“I elaborated the technology basing on my experiments, then, engineers worked on it. As for now, the technology is studied at special labs. We are now preparing a pilot project to recycle 1-2 tonnes of leaves and to get maximum accurate indicators in order to understand whether it still will be relevant,” Valentyn says.
However, Valentyn looks shy to speak about his achievements. He says he doesn’t claim to be a great inventor or an author of a brilliant idea.
“I haven’t invented anything new and I don’t want to be called a person who made a super brilliant product. I joined the studying of producing paper from non-wood raw materials. I focused on fallen leaves because it isn’t studied well, in fact. I managed to make a technology which hadn’t existed before, but it isn’t innovation – it is just an addition to the whole concept,” the author says.
Paper isn’t the main thing
The point is that the idea which made Frechka famous in Ukraine and overseas doesn’t have paper as the main peculiarity. The main thing is an intermediate product of cellulose. It is not used for manufacturing of perfect white sheets, but for cardboard producing.
“Cellulose is the main component as we use it to manufacture cardboard or molded packaging. I work now at the Zhitomir Cardboard Factory where everybody works with cardboard but collaborates with overseas companies which use wood and non-wood cellulose. That’s why we made a decision: we will use fallen leaves cellulose as an additive. 25% – cardboard, 75% – our leaves. It is crucial to understand that it isn’t a white piece of paper with a perfect structure. No, it is cardboard, packaging paper, molded packaging,” Frechka explains.
According to preliminary calculations, a number of fallen leaves gathered only in the Zhytomyr region in a season can be used to manufacture cardboard sufficient for the whole country for a year. Valentyn uses only leaves gathered in parks and public gardens, not in forests. Valentyn is criticized for leaving soil without nutrient elements. However, Frechka says it is nonsense as fallen leaves contain many heavy metals and salts which can kill all the organic elements when they get into the soil. Actually, this is why city crews take fallen leaves away.
Nevertheless, the most difficult thing, from the economic point of view as well, is keeping this raw material. The problem can be solved by buying quality and quite expensive equipment which is able to recycle up to 30 tonnes of leaves a day. It will dramatically decrease the product price, however, the final figures are still unknown.
“I can’t say anything exact about the price because we haven’t decided yet what to focus on: cardboard molded packaging. We are now launching the first line, it is our pilot project which supposes buying equipment, its setting, launching one line and testing cellulose manufacturing and collecting all the indicators. When we have this intermediate product of cellulose, then I will be able to announce the price to Ukraine and the whole world,” the inventor says.
The target group of Valentyn’s technology is European countries, however, it is too early to speak about any agreements: at first, a product must be manufactured. Nevertheless, Denmark and Finland are already interested in the product, not in buying technology.
“I went overseas due to the state”
During the conversation, Valentyn says that most of the media publications about him create a myth that he was abandoned with his project. However, it is not true. It turned out, that these were Ukrainian state educational institutions and the Ministry of Education which financed Valentyn’s participation in international academic competitions (the USA, Kenia, Tunis etc.). Moreover, the funding was sufficient: there was enough money for tickets, food, comfort, and other important needs.
“I talked to participants from Kazakhstan, Japan, Korea, Singapore and you know what? No, you don’t! These countries don’t finance these trips. Children pay their money to participate and present their projects. Moreover, even if they come back home with medal prizes and Grand-Prix – media don’t tell about them, they are just children of parents who have enough money to let their children go and tell about their projects. The system is cruel. It is different in Ukraine. Due to the state, I went overseas, and the media mentioned me the most frequently,” Valentyn smiles.
At once, the state isn’t connected with the project because the money needed for its implementing is quite big. Valentyn says there are many people in Ukraine who are ready to invest their money in top-projects, but we… don’t have such projects… or there are just a few of them. Instead, we have many copies and plagiarism.
“I would create the Ministry of Innovations and Smart-Promoting of Ukraine. This institution would check researchers and inventors and their activity to make it impossible to create plagiarism or pseudo-scientific nonsense. This would be the basis for a contest which would choose, for example, 10 projects a year. The Ministry would make startups out of them and promote. We would make a big step in medicine, engineering of all kinds etc. Because of the business struggle with the EU and the USA, our economy would have more regulations, and investments, relatively, would be returned on the basis of profit,” Frechka says.
“What should I leave Ukraine for?”
Frechka seems to be uninterested in emigration at all. When we started to speak about possibilities to leave Ukraine, Valentyn was even surprised: but what for?
“OK, if I went, who I would be there? I would be just an ordinary student, that’s all. And my project would be left in Ukraine, everybody would know that there was Valentyn Frechka who once made something, and now he is just a student at a prestigious university.
We live in the times when the time is a very valuable resource. Why should I waste my time to listen to lectures at Harvard when I can open YouTube in the evening being in Ukraine and just watch all these lectures. If I went to the USA, others would also go and constantly say that “here everything is not as there,” Valentyn says.
Philosopher’s cellulose or what’s next?
Valentyn has two key interests, two vectors of further activity and development. One of them is helping young inventors on a special startup platform. The other is cellulose manufacturing without using any raw materials.
“It is using certain reactive chemicals and manipulations to manufacture lots of high-quality cellulose. You know, there is a philosopher’s stone, and this is philosopher’s cellulose, I mean we make something which totally undermines the economy of the pulp and paper industry as we need neither wood nor other raw materials. It is an absolutely new technology. There are only two articles about it on the Internet. It makes my work more difficult because I work with my eyes closed,” Frechka says.
As for another inventing activity, Valentyn is going to get into it when he becomes financially independent. So far, many steps have been made in the technology which made the inventor famous. However, besides realizing that time is perhaps the most valuable resource, it should be borne in mind that project details need to be elaborated. Especially taking into account that first steps were made at an ordinary school. Despite all the obstacles, the inventor promises: the technology will be definitely launched.
Text by Dmytro Zhuravel