Could algae help us fight the plastic problem?

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It’s no secret that the world has a problem with plastic. Honeybees are making nests entirely from plastic, remote beaches on tiny islands are covered in tonnes of plastic and sea creatures get ensnared in it and ingest it.

While reducing our plastic use as individuals is helpful, large-scale change is needed to truly address the problem. Professor Ben Hankamer and Dr Nasim Amiralian, from IMB’s Centre for Solar Biotechnology, led a team that examined the future of plastics and how tiny species of algae and bacteria may help us produce more environmentally friendly versions.

Just like plants, algae use photosynthesis to absorb CO2 and produce chemicals, all powered by the sun. They are investigating the ability of algae to manufacture both non-degradable and degradable plastics.

Although non-degradable plastics don’t sound like much of a win for the environment, Ben explains that they do have a role to play in a carbon-friendly future.

“Instead of single-use plastics that often become waste, bio-based non-degradable plastics can play an important role as carbon sinks. The CO2 that is absorbed as part of photosynthesis is taken out of the atmosphere and can be stored in materials that are made into sustainable, long-lasting infrastructure such as pipes, building materials and road surfaces, helping governments and nations to reduce their CO2 emissions.”

In addition, fully bio-degradable bioplastics can be used to create products with a shorter life span with a minimal environmental impact. 

“The timescale over which these plastics break down can theoretically be tailored to the purpose of the product, for example, engineering a soft drink bottle that will fully degrade in a few years,” Ben said.

Although the technology exists to produce bio-based plastics, their performance needs to be improved and their cost needs to be reduced before the vision of a future with sustainable plastics can truly become reality. Ben’s team is using tools to make tiny and precise changes to the genetic code of algae to enable these species to produce useful products in a closed system.

October 23rd is UQ’s Giving Day. You can be a ChangeMaker by supporting more talented researchers like Ben and Nasim through the Future Scientist Scholarship, QBI Discovery Research Fund or Ignite Innovation Awards.

Become a ChangeMaker on UQ's Giving Day