The duo won a $1.18 million prize for their plastics-to-protein project
Humanity has a plastic problem, but who said the problem couldn't also be tasty? Scientists are trying to come up with creative solutions to address the ever-growing issue every day, with some even converting plastic bottles into vanillin using bacteria. Most recently, two scientists have echoed this sentiment and won the $1.18 million (1 million euro) 2021 Future Insight Prize in the process by creating a food 'generator' concept that turns plastics into protein.
The names behind the project, which was initially funded by a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) cooperative agreement award for $7.2 million over four years, are Ting Lu, a professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, and Stephen Techtmann, associate professor of biological sciences at Michigan Technological University.
Their goal was to improve a process for converting plastic trash into protein powder and lubricants using a combination of chemicals and high heat (pyrolysis). The two scientists call their project a food 'generator.'
"We use engineered natural organisms to break down the plastics and non-edible plant biomass to convert into food," Techtmann explained. “It is such an honor to be awarded this prize. This prize will allow us to pursue high-risk and high-reward lines of research that will enable us to move this work forward more quickly.”
The researchers envisage a system in which individuals may deposit plastic garbage or non-edible biomass into a slot. The waste goes into processing reactors where heat is used to break it down. The byproduct is then put into a tank with a bacterial population, which feasts on it. The cells are then dried down into a powder and stored for subsequent use.
The resulting foods “contain all the required nutrition, are nontoxic, provide health benefits and additionally allow for personalization needs,” according to Merck Group, which has funded and recognized the project.
The researchers are experimenting with a range of PET materials to find the optimal particle size and processing parameters for reducing energy use while still producing the most product that will be eaten by the microbial community. The groundbreaking technique has the potential to provide a safe and sustainable food supply while decreasing the environmental harm caused by plastic waste and traditional farming practices.