Synthetic polymers are integral to a variety of industries. They are used in the manufacture of everything from garments to plastic containers. While many synthetic polymers can be recycled, this process can be costly, time consuming, and introduce pollutants into the environment. Unless specifically engineered, synthetic polymers are inherently not biodegradable, meaning that ease of reuse and ability to be recycled are of great importance to ensure high levels of sustainability in their use. It would be beneficial to develop easier, ecologically friendly methods for the breakdown and recycling of synthetic polymers.
ORNL and NREL researchers have developed a novel microbe that is capable of easily breaking down synthetic polymers. They have specifically inserted an enzyme into the genome of the microorganism that can break bonds between individual polymer monomers. Additionally, these microorganisms can be engineered to break down multiple types of polymers into even more basic components. Further, they can be modified with transporters that allow secretion of these products into the surrounding environment/growth media for ease of separation and upgrading. This allows for easier harvest of or disposal of the resultant catabolic products. The utilized organism allow for a greater breadth of specificity and customization depending on the specific polymer and byproducts in question.
Applications and Industries
- Industrial processes
- Materials sciences
- Advanced materials engineering
- Sustainability and waste management
- Ease of use
- No potentially toxic reagents