Breakthrough Bioplastic: Bacteria-Powered Material Decomposes in Months


New Bioplastic Infused with Bacterial Spores Could Reduce Plastic Waste

In a groundbreaking development, researchers from the University of California San Diego have created a biodegradable form of thermoplastic polyurethane (TPU) that could significantly reduce the environmental impact of the plastic industry. The innovative material, detailed in a study published in Nature Communications on April 30, is infused with bacterial spores that enable it to break down in compost at the end of its life cycle.

TPU, a soft yet durable plastic, is widely used in various products such as footwear, floor mats, cushions, and memory foam. The research team, led by nanoengineering professor Jon Pokorski and bioengineering research scientist Adam Feist, utilized a strain of Bacillus subtilis bacteria known for its ability to break down plastic polymer materials.

The researchers incorporated dormant bacterial spores into the TPU during the manufacturing process. When exposed to nutrients in compost, these spores germinate and begin to decompose the plastic. Remarkably, the material achieved a 90% degradation rate within just five months, even in the absence of additional microbes.

"What's remarkable is that our material breaks down even without the presence of additional microbes," said Pokorski. "This ability to self-degrade in a microbe-free environment makes our technology more versatile."

To create a strain of bacteria capable of withstanding the high temperatures required for TPU production, the researchers employed a technique called adaptive laboratory evolution. This process involved subjecting the spores to increasingly extreme temperatures and allowing them to mutate naturally, ultimately resulting in a heat-resistant strain optimized for the purpose.

In addition to its biodegradability, the bacterial spores also serve as a strengthening filler, enhancing the mechanical properties of the TPU. The modified material requires more force to break and exhibits greater stretchability compared to traditional TPU.

While the current study focused on small-scale production, the researchers are working on optimizing the approach for industrial use. Future efforts include scaling up production, evolving the bacteria to break down plastic materials more rapidly, and exploring the application of this technology to other types of plastics.

As plastic waste continues to pose a significant threat to the environment, the development of biodegradable alternatives like this bacteria-infused TPU offers hope for a more sustainable future. With further advancements in this field, we may soon see a reduction in the plastic industry's environmental footprint and a cleaner planet for generations to come.