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UC San Diego Scientists Unveil Plant-Based Polymers that Biodegrade Microplastics in Months
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UC San Diego Scientists Unveil Plant-Based Polymers that Biodegrade Microplastics in Months
by Clarence Oxford
Los Angeles CA (SPX) Mar 22, 2024

As the environmental and health hazards of microplastics become increasingly evident, researchers at the University of California San Diego, in collaboration with Algenesis, have made a literally groundbreaking discovery. Their development of algae-based polymers marks a significant advancement in the quest for sustainable alternatives to petroleum-based plastics. These novel materials are not only fully biodegradable but also capable of decomposing at the microplastic level within just seven months, according to findings published in Nature Scientific Reports.

"Microplastics, which persist in our environment and bodies for centuries, present a formidable challenge to both planetary and human health. Our aim is to introduce biodegradable alternatives that alleviate these concerns," explained Michael Burkart, Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry at UC San Diego and an Algenesis co-founder. The research team, composed of UC San Diego faculty, alumni, and former scientists, has demonstrated that these plant-based polymers can completely break down, even as microplastics, in a compost environment.

The biodegradation process was meticulously verified using a trio of analytical methods. A respirometer first confirmed that the material, when decomposed by microbes, matched the biodegradability of cellulose, a benchmark for 100% degradation. Water flotation tests further revealed a stark contrast between the algae-based polymers and traditional plastics, with the former showing a remarkable reduction in recovery, indicating substantial biodegradation. Finally, gas chromatography/mass spectrometry (GCMS) analysis and scanning-electron microscopy provided conclusive evidence of the polymers' breakdown into their original plant-based components.

"This represents a major shift in our approach to plastic production and disposal, introducing a type of plastic that, rather than accumulating as microplastic pollution, is fully assimilated by natural processes," stated Stephen Mayfield, a coauthor of the study and professor at the School of Biological Sciences.

The success of this research not only offers a viable solution to the microplastics crisis but also demonstrates the potential for widespread application of these biodegradable polymers in existing manufacturing processes. Algenesis is already partnering with companies like Trelleborg and RhinoShield to incorporate this sustainable material into commercial products, ranging from coated fabrics to cell phone cases.

As the project progresses, the implications extend beyond environmental restoration; they embody a promise of safer materials that don't compromise human health or the planet's well-being. The researchers' commitment to innovation has transformed the perceived limits of plastic production, offering hope for a future where sustainable materials are the norm.

Research Report:Rapid biodegradation of microplastics generated from bio-based thermoplastic polyurethane

Related Links
University of California - San Diego
Space Technology News - Applications and Research

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