Science Fair Project Isolates Plastic-Eating Microbes

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In the spirit of the awesome maverick science-fair project[1], I give you Daniel Burd and his amazing plastic-eating microbes.

"Almost every week I have to do chores and when I open the closet door, I have this avalanche of plastic bags falling on top of me," he said. "One day, I got tired of it and I wanted to know what other people are doing with these plastic bags."

The answer: not much. So he decided to do something himself.

He knew plastic does eventually degrade, and figured microorganisms must be behind it. His goal was to isolate the microorganisms that can break down plastic — not an easy task because they don’t exist in high numbers in nature.

Daniel proceeded to use iterated experiments and the good old scientific method to extract the most effective bacteria and determine the optimal conditions for degrading polyethylene bags. The result was an amazing 43% degradation over six weeks, much better than the thousand years it would ordinarily take to break down the plastic. (Be sure to read the whole story for some inspiring bits of detective work.)

The best part?

Industrial application should be easy, said Burd. "All you need is a fermenter . .
. your growth medium, your microbes and your plastic bags."

The inputs are cheap, maintaining the required temperature takes little energy because microbes produce heat as they work, and the only outputs are water and tiny levels of carbon dioxide — each microbe produces only 0.01 per cent of its own infinitesimal weight in carbon dioxide, said Burd.

Well done, Daniel. I hope to see a plastic-bag compost bin on the market in a few years, or at least a Wired How-To on making one for myself. (via Mother Jones)

UPDATE: Daniel Burd’s entire paper is online: Plastic Not Fantastic (PDF, 95KB)

[1] See my previous mention of homemade aerogels. Kids these days!

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