The Tel Aviv University study describes a process to make bioplastic polymers that require neither land or fresh water — resources that are scarce in much of the world. The polymer is derived from microorganisms that feed on seaweed.
The invention was the fruit of a multidisciplinary collaboration between Dr. Alexander Golberg of TAU's Porter School of Environmental and Earth Sciences and Prof. Michael Gozin of TAU's School of Chemistry. Their research was recently published in the journal Bioresource Technology.
"Plastics take hundreds of years to decay. So, bottles, packaging and bags create plastic 'continents' in the oceans, endanger animals and pollute the environment," says Dr. Golberg. "Plastic is also produced from petroleum products, which has an industrial process that releases chemical contaminants as a by-product.
Are renewably-sourced plastics the solution?
“To grow the plants or the bacteria to make the plastic requires fertile soil and fresh water, which many countries, including Israel, don't have. Our new process produces 'plastic' from marine microorganisms that completely recycle into organic waste," Golberg explained.
The researchers harnessed microorganisms that feed on seaweed to produce polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA). It is biodegradable, produces zero toxic waste and recycles into organic waste.
"Our raw material was multicellular seaweed, cultivated in the sea," Dr. Golberg says. "These algae were eaten by single-celled microorganisms, which also grow in very salty water and produce a polymer that can be used to make bioplastic.”
He continued: "There are already factories that produce this type of bioplastic in commercial quantities, but they use plants that require agricultural land and fresh water. The process we propose will enable countries with a shortage of fresh water, such as Israel, China and India, to switch from petroleum-derived plastics to biodegradable plastics."
"We are now conducting basic research to find the best bacteria and algae that would be most suitable for producing polymers for bioplastics with different properties," he concluded.
The research was partially funded by the TAU-Triangle Regional R&D Center in Kfar Kara under the academic auspices of Tel Aviv University, and by the Israeli Ministry of Energy and Infrastructures.