Plastic into biodiesel

In an effort to develop a new source of sustainable energy, researchers at Polytechnic University have bioengineered a fuel-latent plastic that can be converted into biodiesel.

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), the central research and development organization for the US Department of Defense, has awarded the researchers $2.34 million to advance the technology and transfer it to industry.

Professor Richard Gross, director of Polytechnic University’s National Science Foundation (NSF) Center for Biocatalysis and Bioprocessing of Macromolecules (CBBM) developed the new bioplastic using vegetable oils. He also partnered with DNA 2.0, a biotechnology company specializing in gene synthesis, to develop enzymes that can both synthesise and break the fuel-latent plastic down into biodiesel after its use.

“We showed DARPA that we could make a new plastic from plant oils that has remarkable properties, which includes being tougher and more durable than typical polyethylenes. Additionally, the bioplastic can be placed in a simple container where it is safely broken down to liquid fuel,” said Dr. Gross.

The process of converting biogengineered fuel-latent plastics into biodiesel is of interest to DARPA since the US military can use this technology on the frontline.

“Military units generate substantial quantities of packaging waste when engaging in stationary field operations. If we can turn this waste into fuel, we will see a double benefit – we will reduce the amount of waste that we have to remove, and we will reduce the amount of new fuel that we must deliver to the units,” explained Khine Latt, program manager for DARPA’s Mobile Integrated Sustainable Energy Recovery program.

The next phase of the research will entail developing a more efficient low-cost process for both manufacturing the bioplastic and converting it into biodiesel.