Engineering researcher helps turn food wastes into plastic

Caixia “Ellen” Wan is assisting other researchers at Virginia Tech on a $2.4 million grant from the USDA.

Ellen Wan in the lab

April 6, 2023

A University of Missouri engineer is helping researchers at Virginia Tech develop a process to convert food wastes into biodegradable plastics.

Caixia “Ellen” Wan is an associate professor of chemical and biomedical engineering and a bioprocess engineer. She’s part of a team that recently received a $2.4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to upscale bioplastic production with the goal of replacing petroleum-based plastics while also keeping leftovers out of landfills.

The first-of-its kind project aims to solve two significant problems. Because bioplastics are made from plant and animal products that naturally degrade, they can replace traditional plastics that have harmful effects on the environment, especially marine life. On the other end, diverting food scraps from landfills can significantly reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Wan will convert different categories of food wastes, such as vegetables, bread and meat, using microorganisms that can process various substrates into polyester biopolymers for plastic materials.

“There’s no one method that can be applied to all types of food wastes,” she said.

Other researchers on the team are developing a large-scale system to use Wan’s techniques and mass produce new types of plastics for cups, bottles, films and other consumer products.

“The ultimate goal is to use food wastes to produce biodegradable plastics in a circular bio-economy context,” she said. “This system includes converting food wastes, extracting and purifying products and applying bioplastics. However, before we can proceed, we need to first solve the issue of biosynthesis of biodegradable plastic from food waste.”

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