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Air Quality DARPA funds research into bioplastic made from yeast

Published on December 12th, 2010 | by Tina Casey

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U.S. Defense Agency Deploys Yeast to Fight Global Warming

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December 12th, 2010 by
 
DARPA funds research into bioplastic made from yeastThe U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, otherwise known as DARPA, has been developing next generation solar technology and a slew of other game-changing innovations designed to drive the military into a more sustainable future. The latest example is a new kind of  bioplastic made from yeast. And what, you may ask, does bioplastic have to do with national defense?

Bioplastic and National Defense

As it turns out, bioplastic has everything to do with national defense.  Disposing of waste is part and parcel of the “logistical nightmare” and troop risk equation that fossil fuels pose for overseas bases. Whether trucked off site to landfills or burned on site, the disposal operation requires fuel and plenty of it. Just to give you some idea of the volume involved, a couple of years ago the military’s Strategic Environmental Research and Development Program (SERDP) estimated that the 135,000 U.S. troops stationed in Iraq were generating 446 million pounds of plastic waste annually.

Bioplastic and Composting

Now, if all that plastic was bioplastic, composting would be an option. And if you don’t think the U.S. military is interested in all that hippy-dippy composting stuff, guess again. They’ve been investigating both food waste and sewage sludge composting (pdf), so bioplastic composting is the next logical step. It sure beats soaking solid waste in diesel fuel and putting it in a burn box, which is the conventional practice.

Bioplastic and Yeast

DARPA’s contribution to all this is in the form of a company called SyntheZyme, which it selected to develop a new form of bioplastic. Lead researcher Richard Gross of New York University’s Polytechnic Institute came up with a unique, low cost  fermentation process to produce the omega-hydroxyfatty acids that form the building blocks of bioplastic, using plant oils and a common form of yeast called Candida tropicalis. The process does not require fossil fuel energy, and the result is an all-biodegradable, durable, moisture-resistant bioplastic that can be used for different kinds of packing films, bags, and gloves.

Bioplastic and Flexible Logistics

Interestingly, the idea is to use the bioplastic as packaging material, then break it down and use it for biodiesel on site rather than composting it. That part of the research is still under way, and if successful it demonstrates multipurpose flexibility that DARPA and other Department of Defense agencies envision for the fighting force of the future, in which energy is harvested or scavenged from a variety of renewable resources, including garbage. Let’s hope that certain politicians change their head-in-the-sand position on climate change and start adapting this mindset for civilian life, too.

Image: Yeast by eddie.welker on flickr.com.

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About the Author

Tina Casey specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Tina’s articles are reposted frequently on Reuters, Scientific American, and many other sites. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.



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