October 24, 2020


Connecting People

From Plastic to Protein Powder

Michigan Tech scientists have been selected for a $seven.two million DARPA cooperative
arrangement award to change army plastic squander into protein powder and lubricants.

It is a well-documented reality that we have a plastic dilemma. Plastic is so ubiquitous
in packaging, numerous people never even consider two times about tossing it in the trash, even
while it will probable conclusion up polluting the ecosystem or the oceans in some way.

But other people have started to question if there is a brighter future for plastic, which immediately after
all, took a whole lot of resources to make. These people visualize a far more wholesome future
for the content that arguably most defines post-industrial lifetime. They check with, can plastic
be converted into foodstuff?

 About the Researcher


Hold out, what?

It is not as outrageous as it seems, and it involves some quite nifty chemical acrobatics.

Steve Techtmann, assistant professor of biological sciences at Michigan Technological
College, has been selected to receive a Defense Superior Investigate Projects Agency
(DARPA) cooperative arrangement award for $seven.two million above 4 many years to refine a strategy
of chemical and high heat (pyrolysis) deconstruction of plastic squander into protein
powder and lubricants. The project, BioPROTEIN (Biological Plastic Reuse by Olefin
and Ester Reworking Engineered Isolates and Natural Consortia), is a collaboration
among Michigan Tech and Ting Lu, professor of bioengineering at the College of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At Michigan Tech, signing up for Techtmann
are chemical engineers Rebecca Ong and David Shonnard and supplies engineer Joshua Pearce.

“What we’re striving to do total is to take plastic or blended squander from army functions
and make it into some thing useful for the army,” Techtmann reported. “Often, plastic
is the toughest squander to deal with. Our project is striving to obtain ways to convert squander
plastic into protein powder or nutritional dietary supplements and lubricants. The typical
concept is that plastic is really hard to crack down working with biology since it’s created up of a
polymer, and its models are trapped jointly. To crack aside the polymer, some microorganisms
can do this, but it’s pretty sluggish. So, to convert plastic into foodstuff immediately, we need to have
an alternate approach.”

The procedure of having plastic squander and converting it into protein powder and lubricant.
Picture Credit rating: Steve Techtmann/Michigan Tech 

Design and style, Get better, Combine

The 4-calendar year project is damaged into 3 phases. During the initial period, the investigate
workforce will display its evidence of concept, that it can change squander plastic into protein powder
and lubricant. They will design and style and use the separations method to get better two.5 grams
of microbial protein powder. 

“There are devices for dealing with plastic where by you recycle it. Michigan Tech created just one where by you take a plastic squander object and change it into a new, useful plastic product,”
Techtmann reported. “Our strategy is to put plastic in and change it into some thing entirely
various on the other aspect of the box.”

“This investigate will make it possible for us to take the plastic squander we’re producing in the earth
and change it into some thing useful: foodstuff and fuel.”Steve Techtmann

The next period is to demonstrate the workforce can put the personal pieces jointly
to get better 100 grams of microbial protein powder from society medium.

In the last period, the workforce will change their “black box” into a discipline operational
unit that can integrate separations into the method and purify kilograms of protein
powder at a time from the recovered media. The goal is for the method to be self-sustaining
for as long as 28 times, and for it to suit on the back again of a truck and use solar strength
for ability. Also, the workforce will 3D print numerous of the method components and
make these models open up supply, generating the method very affordable in configurations further than the army, these types of as in catastrophe
relief situations.

Crack It Down, Make It Up

The initial action of the procedure is to convert plastic into compounds that search considerably
like oil working with heat and a reactor that can deconstruct plastic’s polymer chains. The
oil-like compound is then fed to a community of oil-taking in microorganisms Techtmann’s lab
has been studying. The microorganisms develop pretty rapidly on their oily diet plan, developing far more
bacterial cells, which are about eighty five% protein. It is by way of this procedure that the workforce
can convert plastic to protein pretty immediately. 

Grants and Funding 

DARPA grant HR0011-twenty-two-0033 

The scientists visualize a method like this: There is a slot on just one aspect where by troopers
will throw in their plastic squander. The squander goes into processing reactors to be damaged
down by heat and/or chemicals. At the time damaged down, the byproduct will be fed into a
vat with the microorganisms, which chew on whatsoever flows there and develop. The cells are
then dried down into a powder that can be employed as desired.

At Illinois, Lu focuses on engineering microbial gene circuits for novel chemical
and biomolecule production. Working with the workforce users at Michigan Tech, he aims
to engineer microorganisms to upgrade the protein powder with highest nourishment.

“By enriching precise amino acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids, we hope to increase
the nutrient articles of the powder and tailor it for army need to have,” Lu reported.

Alongside the way, the workforce is doing the job with the funding agency as well as other regulators
these types of as the U.S. Foods and Drug Administration to make certain the growth of a product
that can be employed as foodstuff and is not toxic in any way. 

Techtmann reported doing the job with a workforce of people from various tutorial backgrounds and
investigate centers — the Terrific Lakes Investigate Centre and the Sustainable Futures Institute —brings a richness to the project.

“It involves a diversity of people with various abilities,” he reported. “The interdisciplinary
aspect is really fascinating to me.”

And finally, Techtmann sees a need to have for the method further than army use.

“This is about producing a engineering that we can hand off. We’re developing it for
the dilemma of expeditionary army models, but the engineering we would arrive up with
could be scaled to get clear drinking water and foodstuff to people who need to have it in catastrophe relief,”
he reported. “It’s a normal consequence of the project to be broader than just in army
apps. We’re furnishing a framework for how we deal with plastic squander in typical.”

Michigan Technological College is a community investigate university, dwelling to far more than
seven,000 pupils from fifty four countries. Established in 1885, the College provides far more than
one hundred twenty undergraduate and graduate degree plans in science and engineering, engineering,
forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and
social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway
and is just a several miles from Lake Superior.