Mind & Matter


Microbes Turn Waste into Plastic

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Genetically engineered microbial cells may be used to produce new polymers. Photo: Linda Stewart, istockphoto.com


As petroleum-based plastics become more expensive with the increased cost of fossil fuels, scientists hope that a portion of future polymers may be developed from waste. Researchers at the Academy of Finland Centre of Excellence (CoE) are creating genetically modified microbes for just this purpose, designed to convert sugars from organic refuse into useful compounds for future materials.

“By means of gene technology, we can modify microbial metabolism and thereby produce organic acids for a wide range of industrial applications," says Merja Penttilä, a professor at Finland's VTT Technical Research Center. "They can be used, among other things, for manufacturing new plastic and textile materials, or packaging technologies."

The secret involves modifying the microbes' metabolism so that they convert plant sugars from biomass into sugar acids—important components in the formation of new kinds of polyesters and other plastics. "Sugar acids can be used to produce biodegradable technical plastics, including polyamides, or functional components that increase the ability of cellulose to absorb water," says Ali Harlin, professor and the director of the CoE Green Chemistry team. "Novel materials could replace the currently available non-biodegradable absorbent components in hygiene products. Sugar acids are also a source of hydroxy acids, such as glycolic acid, whose oxygen-barrier properties make it suitable for food packaging."



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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.