$ 2 million NSF grant to fund plastic waste research


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Research will focus on the degradation of the two most common plastics in packaging: polystyrene, used in disposable coffee cups, and polyethylene, which is commonly used in packaging films.


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A team of researchers from Texas A&M University and the University of Oklahoma will establish an effective strategy for biodegrading plastic waste with a $ 2 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation program.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency, it is estimated that only about 9% of plastic waste generated in the country is recycled, and the rest ends up in landfills, incinerators or marine environments. Due to the time it takes for these plastics to decompose, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimates that they will be there for 100 years or more.

“The aim of the research is to develop technology and methods that can alleviate this problem, in particular by breaking down plastic waste and then converting the degradation products into high-value products,” said Arum Han, professor at the Texas A&M Electrical and Computer Engineering Department. and principal investigator on the project. “Putting in place an effective strategy for biodegrading plastic waste will be a game-changer in overcoming growing environmental and health concerns around the world. “

The team will use microorganisms, fungi and bacteria to essentially break down plastic components that could be used as raw materials for the production of other materials.

“Our multidisciplinary team of investigators, with expertise in microfluidic engineering, synthetic biology and microbiology, will work together to decipher how these microorganisms break down plastic waste and use this information to design bacterial cells to improve the efficiency of degradation, ”Han said. “We will also use a mix of different bacteria and fungi as a consortium to improve the efficiency of plastic degradation, mimicking the way microbes work together to break down complex materials in nature.”

There are many types of plastics, but this research will focus on the degradation of the two most common plastics in packaging: polystyrene, used in disposable coffee cups, and polyethylene, commonly used in packaging films. The team has already isolated several different bacteria and fungi that show promise for degrading these plastics.

In addition to Han, the co-principal investigators are Xuejun Zhu and Qing Sun, assistant professors in the Artie McFerrin Department of Chemical Engineering at Texas A&M; Won-Bo Shim, professor and associate department head for academics in the Department of Plant Pathology and Microbiology at Texas A&M; and Aifen Zhou, a researcher at the Institute for Environmental Genomics at the University of Oklahoma.

Han will use high-throughput microfluidic devices to screen millions of individual strains or variants of microbial libraries to identify the microbes most efficient in degrading and reusing plastic.

Zhu is an expert in synthetic biology, natural product discovery and microbiome engineering who will work on the identification of plastic degradation products and enzyme discovery and use this knowledge to improve the efficiency of plastic degradation enzymes through to a directed evolution. Sun is an expert in synthetic biology and microbiome engineering and will work on engineering bacteria and creating a bacterial community capable of breaking down plastic waste more efficiently. Shim, an expert in fungal biology and genetics, will study fungi that degrade plastic, identify their mechanisms and the most efficient strains, and then create consortia of synthetic fungal bacteria suited to enhance the degradation potential of plastic.

Zhou, an expert in environmental microbiology and molecular biology, has worked on the isolation of plastic-degrading microbial strains from the gut microbiomes of mealworms and enrichments of naturally altered plastic waste samples, which are the source of bacteria and of mushrooms that will be used in this project. She will continue to work on the isolation and identification of the most promising plastic degradation microorganisms in the environment.

“We will use several modified microorganisms as ‘consortia’ to degrade plastic waste so that we can process mixed plastic waste,” Han said. “At the same time, we will use the latest synthetic biology technique to engineer microbes so that they can use the degradation product as a source to create high added value products.”

The team will train next-generation researchers through exposure to multidisciplinary science and engineering at the secondary and undergraduate levels as part of the grant. The team will also create e-learning modules, presentations and social networking materials to build partnerships between universities and the public to communicate and improve scientific awareness on the future of plastic waste and the potential for bioremediation.

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