In our effort to keep you up to date on the most interesting climate solutions, bring you an overview of aquaplastic, a bacterial biofilm-based plastic alternative that has shown encouraging results.
Plastic is both one of the best and worst discoveries human-kind has ever made. Never has a material had so many applications, from household wares and recipients to parts in engineering. Unfortunately, its durability means it degrades by breaking down into progressively smaller pieces, until it is invisible to the naked eye (nanoplastics). Found on land, in water, and even floating in the air, plastic has even made it near the top of Mount Everest.
While the extent of our planet’s plastification may be somewhat surprising, it isn’t really a shock. We knew. Or at least assumed, and many of the world’s greatest minds have been hard at work trying to find a solution. First and most obvious would be improving our recycling systems, but this is an incredibly complicated task in a world governed by economics when it is cheaper to make new plastic than to recycle it.
The alternative is, well, plastic alternatives. Bioplastics in particular gained some traction, some even advertised as compostable, though studies have shown that the claims may not be true.
A potentially great step forward has been made by a team of scientists from Northeastern University, Harvard and Johns Hopkins, who say they’ve created a water-processable, biodegradable “aquaplastic” derived from E. coli, a notorious gut bacteria.
You may have few questions here, so let’s work through this. First, E. coli is a bacterium naturally found in the gut, but when ingested through contaminated food it can land you in the hospital. They can aggregate to form what is called a biofilm, a type of bacterial slime that grants resilience and coats surfaces.
The researchers ingeniously used this property to create a E. coli-based hydrogel called aquaplastic, which can be healed and welded to form 3D structures, essentially living emulation of plastic.
The technology is part of an emerging field called “engineered living materials,” where we harness natural processes from living organisms to produce new substances.
In fact, micro-organisms are a wonderful source of solutions, from plastic degradation to greenhouse gas capture, but these are usually hard to scale up.
Indeed, aquaplastic is still being studied and its transition into a commercial product is rather uncertain at the moment, the researchers saying it may depend on securing more funding. Right now, they make it one flask at a time, meaning they are far from the industrial-scale production needed to replace plastic. Further, aquaplastic still has issues, including the fact that it is permeable to water, making it inadequate for food packaging and other uses.
Still, any plastic alternatives with this potential should be noticed and supported given that plastic demand has doubled since 2000 and shows no signs of slowing.
While we are happy to keep bringing you news of innovative solutions for climate change and environmental degradation, we haven’t yet reached the next big breakthrough. Please do what you can to reduce the amount of plastic you use, it makes a difference.
This article was written by Owen Mulhern.
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