Microbes are the secret agents for the new alchemy.
Instead of the ancients using transmuting mysterious agents to attempt to turn lead into gold, today’s scientists are using microbes to convert waste cooking oil as a starting material to generate bioplastics. The process produces plastics that are cheaper than those made with other methods, and it reduces environmental contamination caused by the disposal of waste oil. Also, the plastics made with the method are of high quality, suitable for medical implants.
Currently, poly 3-hydroxybutyrate (PHB) is the most commonly produced polymer in a family of polyesters that are synthesized by a wide variety of bacteria when a carbon supply is plentiful. But growing bacteria in large fermenters to produce generous supplies of bioplastic is expensive because glucose is used as the base material.
Using waste cooking oil as a base material, instead, reduces production costs of the plastic, according to a research team at the University of Wolverhampton in the United Kingdom. Victor Irorere, who carried out the research, says:
Our bioplastic-producing bacterium, Ralstonia eutropha H16, grew much better in oil over 48 hours and consequently produced three times more PHB than when it was grown in glucose. Electrospinning experiments, performed in collaboration with researchers from the University of Birmingham, showed that nanofibers of the plastic produced from oils were also less crystalline, which means the plastic is more suited to medical applications.
PHB is a good polymer to use as a capsule for drug delivery in cancer therapy and as medical implants because of its ability to biodegrade and its non-toxic properties, previous research has shown, according to a press release from the Society for General Microbiology. The British scientists released a paper of their research at the society’s autumn conference. Improved quality and lower production costs would help PHB be used more widely. The scientists are now working on ways to increase production so that it is produced on an industrial level.
“The use of biodegradable plastics such as PHB is encouraged to help reduce environmental contamination,” says Dr. Iza Radecka, one of the researchers. “Unfortunately the cost of glucose as a starting material has seriously hampered the commercialization of bioplastics. Using waste cooking oil is a double benefit for the environment as it enables the production of bioplastics but also reduces environmental contamination caused by disposal of waste oil.”
Dale McGeehon has been a journalist and editor for more than 25 years, covering chemical regulation and testing for Pesticides and Toxic Chemical News and innovations in material sciences for the National Technology Transfer Center. His writing credits include Omni and College Park magazines and The New York Times.