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Bugs Produce Plastics from Waste

Bugs Produce Plastics from Waste

A process in which bugs eat industrial sludge and convert it to plastics is moving close to commercial reality in Sweden.

AnoxKaldnes of Lund, Sweden, is commissioning two new facilities that are one step from commercial production of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) plastics from industrial and municipal wastewater.

"Over the last couple of years, we have operated a pilot-scale facility that has successfully served to prove the concept of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) production from wastewater treatment," says Simon Bengtsson, a research scientist at AnoxKaldnes.

"In particular, we have confirmed that our PHA produced by open mixed cultures treating wastewater have similar or even superior material properties compared to PHA produced from pure microbial cultures and refined substrates," adds Bengtsson.

Bugs Produce Plastics from Waste
There are many commercial ventures under way to produce PHA bioplastics using pure microbial cultures, a costly process. In fact, one of the biggest hurdles facing bioplastics is their cost structure versus plastics made from petroleum and natural gas. Projected PHA prices from current commercial ventures are in the $2.25 to $2.75 per pound range. The competitive oil-based plastics are priced below $1 per pound. The prices from the new wastewater process are expected to be closer to oil-based plastics.

Commercial ventures scaling up PHA production using fermentation processes include Telles, USA ; Biomer Biotechnology Co., Germany; PHB Industrial, Brazil; Mitsubishi Gas Chemical, Japan; Kaneka, Japan; Biomatera, Italy; Jiangsu Nantian Group, China; Tianan Biologic Material, China; and Lianyi Biotech, China.

PHA plastics are biodegradable and could be used in packaging and even some molded automotive components that do not require high temperature tolerance.

In the AnoxKaldnes' approach, the feedstock is a biomass created from organic matter that is removed from wastewater, such as what's left over from pulp and paper production.

The sludge is enhanced with nutrients and oxygen, and then the bugs go to work. The basic idea is that bacteria and other organisms store PHA as a source of carbon and energy for their survival.

Researchers at AnoxKaldnes have been able to boost PHA content to 42 percent of sludge by dry weight.

The work by the company has been partly supported by the European Union Neptune project, which also includes as a partner the Advanced Water Management Centre at The University of Queensland, Australia.

Production of bioplastics is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate above 40 percent through 2015, according to a new report from BCC Research.

A California company called Micromidas is also exploring the potential to produce bioplastics from wastewater.
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