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Environment News Science

Bacteria, Fungus and Decomposition (and growing new materials)

Maurizio

Bacteria, fungus and decomposition.

Doesn’t sound like a great start for a technology blog. But last week I was fortunate to visit a lab in Utrecht University where rather unsurprisingly I learned a lot about decomposition, fungus and how to grow innovative new materials.

A young Italian designer runs the lab, this is him above, working on the border between art and biology. His name is Maurizio Montalti, founder of the “Officina Corpuscoli” in Amsterdam (2010), whose goal is not only to produce beautiful artifacts, but to stimulate thought about the central aspects of design (above all the use of materials) and to provoke questions about much more. The nature of humans (the relationship between life and death) or the nature of progress and its relationship to the world and its ecosystem.

Materials

The lab is the point of departure. Here he showed me different materials with different properties, all grown from fungi. Some is like plastic, can be transparent and in sheet form, and others look and feel a bit like skin, some looks like polystyrene.

Grown Pellet
A Grown Pellet

The choice of materials is central to the idea of the project. The materials that are currently favoured in design such as plastic, foam and metals, are produced using industrial processes that are detrimental to the environment. Maurizio wanted to raise this issue for discussion, and so he began his fungus interest.

For the designer the beauty and fascination for fungus lies in its role in nature. He told me that fungi are everywhere, in the soil and in the air, but we associate them with revulsion, disgust and danger, and we minimize their importance, whereas in fact they are fundamental for decomposition, transformation and recycling. He is interested in its role as re-cycler of biological materials.

Synthetic Biology

And the holy grail: the System Synthetics project, turning plastic waste into energy. Maurizio was interested in crossing fungal capacities to degrade with that of yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, forcing them into symbiosos, to create a microorganism able to decompose plastic materials and give back energy in liquid form (bioethonol produced by the yeast). It is a synthetic biology program whose objective is to provoke questions about the potentials and implications for this discipline (very much a work in progress, whose aim is to involve a wider public in the synthetic biology debate).

other forms
other forms

I would like to add that Maurizio is part of an informal network of “fungicites”, here find an article of a start up in the USA that is producing bricks from bacteria, cutting out the clay and baking process and making it a much more sustainable product.

Read more about Maurizio here, including photos and an interview.

Categories
Environment News Science

Ocean Cleanup

plastic-bottle-beach
We have all heard about the problem of the oceans getting cluttered up with plastic. Unfortunately, solving the problem of marine plastic pollution is not as simple as picking up all of the pieces of plastic. While a lot of plastic pollution is concentrated in the gyres, it is not floating in a single mass on the surface. Pieces of plastic are distributed vertically, through the water column. Plastic breaks down into tiny particles in the ocean, making clean-up efforts very difficult. One of the many challenges of cleanup is how to remove the plastics from the ocean without also removing or damaging marine life.

The Natural Resources Defense Council website has lots of information related to the problem. They also describe some of the possible solutions as also being problematic. This is what they say about bioplastics and their marketing:

“The term “bioplastics” is increasingly being used to refer to a wide range of products, some of which are primarily or entirely plant-derived, others of which contain fossil-fuel-derived plastic, and all of which might be biodegradable, compostable, recyclable, some combination, or none of the above. While many companies are marketing these products as “green” alternatives to traditional plastics, the reality is more complex. Even biodegradable and compostable plastics are typically designed to break down efficiently only in commercial composting systems; on land or in water, these plastics generally persist long enough to cause potential hazards to water systems and wildlife. Any plastic, regardless of whether it is derived from plants or from fossil fuels, should be properly disposed of, and ideally should be recyclable and/or compostable to avoid the need to landfill.

Besides the issues related to improper disposal, production of bioplastics is also potentially problematic. Corn-based bioplastics are some of the most widely available bioplastics today — while these represent a positive step in the growing market toward finding alternatives to non-renewable, fossil-fuel-derived plastic, they rely on the production of corn, which raises concerns about agricultural impacts on land use, food production and global warming. These production impacts are all significantly reduced by specifying bioplastic products made from waste-based agricultural residues (residues left over after harvest from an existing agricultural land use which would otherwise be treated as waste). Replacing some current plastics with renewable bioplastics (especially those made using agricultural residues) is a promising way to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels, but more research is needed to develop better products which will reduce the reliance on non-renewable resources and address concerns associated with marine plastic pollution”.

Interesting food for thought, so bioplastics do not seem to offer a solution. What we need to do is stop putting plastics into the oceans and try to get the plastic out that is already there.

The Ocean Clean up organization believe they have found a viable way to proceed with the removal part of my great plan, and have launched a crowdfunding appeal to raise the money to put their idea into full production. 19-year-old Boyan Slat has been leading a team that have designed a system that helps the ocean to clean itself. The system uses a series of solid floating barriers that are placed in the ocean. The currents and wind force the ocean to pass under the barriers, but anything that floats or is neutral in the water (plastic for example) cannot pass and so is collected in the boom. The plastic collected can then be reused. The website has a more detailed explanation and a glossy video.

This concentration of the waste means that it can then be removed from the booms easily, and at much lower cost both economically and environmentally that using other methods. Check out the concept here.

So all they need is to raise $2 million to step up into the next phase. At the time of writing the crowdfunding campaign has raised more than $765,000, and with 80 days to go it looks hopeful to me. If you have a few quid to spare it might be a good investment.

Readers might like to have a look at a post I wrote earlier this year about the INSS meeting in Charlotte. The post includes a review and photos of an art installation called “The Real Toy Story”, that includes a giant baby stuffed with waste plastic taken from the sea.

Categories
Environment Science

Review of the INSS Sustainability Meeting

In this post I would like to continue my review of the Integrated Network for Social Sustainability (INSS) meeting in Charlotte, North Carolina. As I mentioned in last week’s post I was fortunate enough to have been selected to present a poster as part of the Saturday afternoon poster session. Further details of the poster and the full abstract are available here, and I was pleased to see many other interesting topics that readers may find worth thinking about.

An array of presenters from many disciplines addressed issues as broad as earthquake risk analysis, teaching sustainability in civil engineering, promoting ethics, culture and community based research and a very interesting permacuture collective run with the aid of students and staff of Ball state University. Read an outline here.

The poster session sat within a large and varied program that included an art exhibition called Sustain me Baby, that included a giant model baby filled with plastic toy trash and photos of dead baby albatrosses, and various installations placed throughout the city representing the problem of plastic waste. See the Keeping Watch website for further details.

The Other Toy Story
The Other Toy Story

The meeting started on Friday with a tour of sustainable manufacturing, that included a visit to a brick works owned and operated by Boral. The Boral website goes into the detail of their sustainable design frame, but the thing I found most interesting about the factory was the fuel used to heat the kiln.

Boral buy waste sawdust from local saw mills, have an in-house grinding and drying process for the dust that they then use as fuel for the kiln. This has brought costs down dramatically as well as providing a market and use for what is essentially a waste product.

The tour was followed by a dinner presentation about aquaponics. This is a system for growing vegetables that relies on using a fish pond and a series of pipes to produce large volumes of vegetables in a relatively small area. The plants grow in pipes fed by the pond water, while the fish provide the nutrients through their excrement. 90% of the water is reused, as the plants remove the nutrients as the water passes so it can be pumped back into the pond in a continuous circuit.

Ron Morgan wove a fantastic story around his project to build gardens in both North Carolina and Haiti, recounting tales of homeless genius, chance meetings and ordinary people leaping into the unknown at the drop of a hat (Sam Fleming for one). Read this article for an outline of his ideas, it is quite an incredible and moving tale.

There are plenty of videos on the web that demonstrate how the system works and how you can build one for a few hundred dollars, start by taking a look at this presentation on Youtube. Ron’s partner Sam Fleming explains the system. He was also on hand to describe the technicalities on Friday evening, and the pair were great entertainment and inspiring.

This type of system really does appear much more efficient than modern industrial production methods, and is readily transferable to inner city production. Ron spoke of his experiences of transferring this system to the earthquake hit island of Haiti, and ideas of how to use the massive quantities of food that it can produce to feed populations that find themselves living in food deserts for any number of reasons.

The conference Keynote Speaker was Julian Agyeman. Readers should take a look at his website for a full description of his work, as it is broad and immense.

This was a hard hitting delivery, in which he outlined his concept of ‘just sustainabilities’ and argued that “integrating social needs and welfare, offers us a more ‘just,’ rounded and equity-focused definition of sustainability and sustainable development, while not negating the very real environmental threats we face” (taken from conference notes).

His focus on social justice led to a call to read sustainability from a broader standpoint, and asked some questions and raised some issues about consumption and justice that many here in the so called industrial world might have difficulty reconciling.

Saturday also included a series of case study presentations, with representatives from SMART CN Project, the National Academy of Engineering, and Habitat for Humanity presenting about their work. They all do interesting stuff. The day closed with a panel discussion entitled Art, Manufacturing, Sustainability.

Sunday started with presentations from virtual attendees, demonstrating both the possibilities and problems that virtual attendance offers and poses. After another session of working group reporting came a session on network engagement tools, before assessment and adjournment.

I had a great time as I think did everyone else. The conference was well organized and there were a wide variety of interests and fields represented. I made a lot of new friends and learned a lot.

Categories
Media News Science

Self Healing Plastic

One of the problems with plastic is that it is very difficult to repair once damaged. When there is a hole in your plastic bucket you cannot generally mend it. But researchers in Spain have developed the world’s first self healing plastic.

Cutting the self healing plastic
Cutting the self healing plastic

Researchers at the CIDETEC Centre for Electrochemical Technologies in San Sebastian, Spain have developed a plastic that once broken can heal itself. All the user has to do is put the pieces together and leave it at room temperature for a couple of hours, and the material kind of re-molds itself. The repair is said to be 97% perfect within a couple of hours, and perfect 2 days later, and a Youtube video demonstrating the strength of the repair is really quite incredible.

Plastics are made up of polymers, a long chain of molecules that are connected through chemical bonds. Natural polymers are everywhere. In nature, many polymers heal themselves when broken or sliced. Think of your skin when you have a small cut — as the two sides of the cut bind back together, you’re witnessing a self-healing polymer in action.

Synthetic polymers are just as common. Scientists started creating nylon and synthetic rubber to make up for the shortage of silk and rubber during World War II. PVC, polyester and many forms of plastic soon followed.

Putting the pieces together
Putting the pieces together

The Spanish have developed the first human-made self-healing polymer to function without a catalyst, they report in the Sept. 13 issue of the journal Materials Horizon. There are in fact other self healing plastics, but they require a catalyst to start the process (ultra violet light for example). Readers might know about self scratch repair paint, as advertised on TV. This paint is made from prawn shells, a fine example of a natural self healing material that uses the sun as catalyst.

The article states that “The idea behind this is to reconnect the chemical crosslinks which are broken when a material fractures, restoring the integrity of the material. This is expected to provide polymers with enhanced lifetime and resistance to fatigue”.

Testing the repair
Testing the repair

The researchers say this breakthrough will allow them to create stronger sealants, paints, adhesives and more. This could eventually lead to self-repairing pipes, bicycle tires and toys, among a million other possibilities.

Sounds great to me, and the less plastic we throw away the better.

Categories
Environment News Science

Turning Human Waste into Plastic

One of the unsung heroes and villains of modern life is human waste, or poo as we like to call it. It is like death and taxes in that well known phrase about certainty, there is an awful lot of it around, and it is full or carbon.

A few years ago there was uproar when we discovered that farmers were using human waste to make their plants grow faster, a practice that like many of life’s more unsavoury issues has remained largely out of the public gaze for years. But what do we do with all of this waste? We can just pump it out into the sea, or dump it in landfill sites as is common in the USA, although these don’t really seem like great solutions to me. Good news is on the horizon though, a company in California has started to use it to make plastic, taking some out of the dumping category and making use of the carbon.

Admittedly we have the old gag reflex again. A plate of carrots grown with the aid of human waste to go with your minced beef with horse trace pie with a plastic bottle made out of human sewage full of fresh, crystal clear mountain water to wash it all down. But just think about the potential.

Waste Not.
Make Use of Human Waste

Plastic can be produced using human waste, bottles can be made from it, and it is biodegradable, so why not? This BBC video tells the story of an experimental bio-plastics lab called Micromidas, where this process is being experimented and researched, and where human waste is already being turned into plastic.

The process involves making a kind of nutrient soup from the waste to which bacteria is added. They produce something called PHA, a type of polyester. They feed on the waste and take up the carbon and turn it into this form of plastic. Then the plastic containing parts are separated and cleaned.

The material is then dried, the plastic extracted and made into pellets. It can then be used to make practically anything that we currently make using fossil fuel based plastic. There is after all no shortage of raw materials, so proponents hope to replace the old fossil fuel production with the new.

The process is very much in experimental stage, but the researchers hope to be able to produce on mass within the next 2 to 3 years, bringing the price down so that it can compete in a global market. Good for everyone, and the environment.

Just as a slightly less obnoxious adjunct I would like to add that Micromidas are also setting up a lab that is working on turning cardboard into Paraxylene, a chemical once more used to make plastic bottles, again in the hope of getting into and cutting out the fossil fuel market (usually Paraxylene comes from oil). Read this report about their work.