Researchers show sustainably produced electricity can be turned into something physical and useful – such as bioplastics

Researchers show sustainably produced electricity can be turned into something physical and useful – such as bioplastics

April 11, 2019
Marcia González

Microbes can be used to grow bioplastics, a sustainable alternative to traditional plastics

Researchers in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, have figured out how to feed electricity to microbes to grow green, biodegradable plastic, the Journal of Industrial Microbiology and Biotechnology has reported.

“As our planet grapples with rampant, petroleum-based plastic use and plastic waste, finding sustainable ways to make bioplastics is becoming more and more important. We have to find new solutions,” said Arpita Bose, assistant professor of biology in Arts & Sciences.

Renewable energy currently accounts for about 11% of total US energy consumption and about 17% of electricity generation.

One of the main issues with renewable electricity is energy storage: how to collect power generated during the sunny and windy hours and hold it for when it is dark and still. Bioplastics are a good use for that “extra” power from intermittent sources, Bose suggests – as an alternative to battery storage, and instead of using that energy to make a different type of fuel.

Her laboratory is among the first to use microbial electrosynthesis to wrangle a polymer called polyhydroxybutyrate (PHB) from electricity-eating microbes. The plastic they are making is “sustainable, carbon-neutral and low-cost”, Bose said.

“One of the major challenges in bioplastic production is the substrate input, which affects cost,” added Tahina Ranaivoarisoa, a research technician in the Bose laboratory and first author of the new paper. “A versatile bacterium such as R. palustris TIE-1 – which can effectively use just carbon dioxide, light and electrons from electricity or iron for bioplastic production – broadens the substrates that could be used in bioplastic production.”

Bose believes that microbially derived bioplastics have a future role to play in space, where astronauts could use 3D printer technology to manufacture their own tools instead of transporting everything ready-made from Earth.

“Our observations open new doors for sustainable bioplastic production not only in resource-limited environments on Earth, but also during space exploration and for in situ resource utilization on other planets,” Bose said.

Plastic Free World Conference & Expo 2019 will take place from Thursday 27 June to Friday 28 June, at the Kap Europa, Frankfurt Messe, Frankfurt, Germany. To register for this highly focused and solutions-driven event, please click here. For sponsorship and exhibition opportunities, please email

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