August 10, 2021

From Plastic to Proteins: Nifty Idea Wins $1.2 Million Prize

It’s commonly understood that plastic is a pesky pollution problem, but a new method might become the best way to deal with it.

The idea is simple: using microbes in a sort of “generator” to break down the perennial material into edible proteins. It’s a concept that recently won its scientific team the 2021 Future Insight Prize, which comes with a cool $1.2 million from the Merck KGaA, a leading German technology company.

Developed by Professor Stephen Techtmann and Professor Ting Lu – respectively of the Michigan Technological University, and the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign– the main goal was to streamline a process of transforming plastic trash into protein powder and lubricants via a combination of high heat and chemicals.

The team illustrated that through the aforementioned process, the broken down material could be fed to bacteria, whereby the engineered microbes kept growing provided there was plastic nearby to consume. Once complete, they could be dried down as powder protein for a variety of uses.

Regarding the award money, Techtmann was ecstatic: “It is such an honour to be awarded this prize. It 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 duo eventually want to fine tune the technology to ensure safe food and fuel; which will, as a result, potentially simultaneously put a huge dent in global hunger and combat environmental degradation.