Monday, October 25th, 2010

When Worlds Collide: Plastics from Poop

Several years back I worked for another fine association that represents the engineers, scientists and plant operators who clean water and return it safely to the environment. That’s right — these are water quality professionals  who serve our local communities and protect public health doing (largely unappreciated) work at wastewater treatment plants that clean up the mess that we all contribute to.

I never thought that world would collide with the plastics world in quite this way:  Micromidas,  a new company based in Sacramento, California, is turning human waste into a plastic. Talk about a supply chain!

According to this “analysis” by Discovery News, the recent University of California-Davis grads who started the company have found a way to turn “50 to 70 percent” of treatment facility sludge (the yucky stuff) into a polymer that does not smell bad.

CEO John  Bissell explains in the article that the company has developed special super microbes that feed on the sludge:

Traditionally in biotech you take a bug, play with its genetic code, and make a Michael Jordan bug for whatever you want to do,” Bissell explained. “Instead, we form teams, like a pro sports teams.” Their robust bugs eat the sludge, get really fat, and that fat turns into a form of polyester. Then, Bissell says, the bugs are killed and the polyester is extracted. This polyester is part of a family of plastics called polyhydroxyalkanoates or PHA.

You can read more in-depth about the technology here. (PHA, of course, is not a new bioplastic – but  it is usually derived from fermentation involving microbes with sugar.)

Micromidas claims that their resulting polymer biodegrades in the environment within 18 months, depending on thickness, and estimates that it can be used in 20 to 60 percent of the applications that currently utilize polyethylene, polystyrene, polypropylene and polyethylene terephthalate (PET).

The polymer is currently in the pilot stage and Micromidas is operating a relatively small  system that has a maximum capacity of a few kilos per day. When they start actually working with partners on applications…well, that could really be when the plastic hits the fan.

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