Poop to Plastic and Biofuel, Innovators Put Crap to Good Use
by Helena Tavares Kennedy (Biofuels Digest) … Faced with two problems – 1) what to do with human waste in space and 2) how to get needed supplies to astronauts in space (especially longer space missions like Mars), scientists are working on solutions. The University of Calgary discovery is probably the most entertaining and interesting solution yet.
UCalgary’s gold-medal project, entitled “Astroplastic: From Colon to Colony,” tests the theory of using human waste as the foundation for a bioplastic that can then be used in 3D printers to build tools. The multi-faculty team received the gold medal prize during a recent competition in the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation’s Giant Jamboree in Boston.
“This year, the University of Calgary’s project involves using genetically engineered E. coli to turn human waste into bioplastics,” reads the team summary of the project.
“We envision our project as a start-to-finish integrated system that can be used in space to generate items useful to astronauts during early Mars missions. This will solve the problem of waste management by upcycling solid human waste into a usable product.”
And yes, it works. More than just an exercise on paper, the iGEM team actually produced the bioplastic in the Bachelor of Health Sciences laboratory, where the team worked all spring and summer, carefully documenting every detail of their collaborative work on a wiki website.
Their method takes bacteria they engineered to consume the volatile fatty acids found in solid human waste. The bacteria consume the acid, forms a plastic, and then secretes the plastic out. The plastic can then be used in 3D printers to create objects like tools needed on a space mission. Their next step is to test the process in a microgravity environment simulation over the next eight months.
From bioplastics to biofuels
Poop isn’t just useful in outer space or as a bioplastic feedstock, however, as we’ve seen it expanding into biofuels and renewable energy as well.
In fact, poop is becoming so valuable a commodity, that South Korea’s government invested $8.7 million in virtual currency that would pay people to poop for biofuels, as reported in the Digest in March. People there will get paid the equivalent of 43 cents every time they use the new waterless toilet developed by the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology that turns human waste directly into biofuel. Hope is that by 2020, the value of the currency will have increased so that every poop “donation” is worth about $3.12. The plan is that the virtual currency will help to support the economically disadvantaged in larger towns and cities where the systems will be implemented.
In Oregon, the city of Portland isn’t letting waste go to waste either. As reported in the Digest in April, the Portland City Council approved a measure to convert methane from the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant into renewable natural gas suitable for powering the city truck fleet. READ MORE
iGEM team’s poop-to-plastic concept wins international gold medal (University of Calgary)