News Feature | April 7, 2015

'Revolutionary' Tech Makes Plastic From Wastewater

By Sara Jerome,
@sarmje

lab.reg

One word: bioplastics.

A pilot project in Brussels has taken wastewater and turned it into bioplastic.

"Belgium-based wastewater treatment company Aquiris, a subsidiary of the conglomerate Veolia, [has had] a pilot project at its Brussels-North Wastewater Treatment Plant to turn wastewater into plastic," the Prague Post reported.

Marc Rigal, the general manager of Aquiris, explained the significance of the project.

“Until now, the sanitation concept has always consisted in eliminating the pollution in wastewater…We have the know-how to both treat the wastewater and recover a byproduct reusable as bioplastics in an existing plant. This is a revolutionary answer to the challenge of natural resource preservation,” he said, per the report.

This technique takes sludge and removes the volatile fatty acids. The fatty acids are mixed with bacteria to digest them and convert them to biopolymers, creating biopolymer chains. The mix is heated to a temperature that sustains the bacteria.

“We use a centrifuge to separate the fatty acids out,” said Bernard Lambrey, who headed the project.

The idea dates back to 2007, when Swedish researchers saw that bacteria in wastewater were creating polymers.

"The bacteria strain was refined over time to be more efficient, and testing was moved to Brussels, where the first successes came in 2011. The bacteria used in the process are put through famine and feast phases, which makes them more productive than if they were fed a steady diet of fatty acids and wastewater," the Post reported.

Aquiris is seeking business partners to bring the project from the pilot phase into reality. "The wastewater from Brussels, with a population of 1.1 million, has the potential to make 20,000 tons of bioplastic a year," the report said.

Cost is one concern about the approach. “The initial expenses are high, but that will come down once it goes into production,” Lambrey told the Post.

The Swedish company AnoxKaldnes was among the first to test wastewater's potential as a bioplastic ingredient.

"After successful laboratory trials with the AnoxKaldnes technology, Veolia Water’s Swedish subsidiary since 2007, it was time to test a full-scale prototype in situ," according to Veolia.

Bioplastics are already being used by some industries.

"Applications of bioplastics are mostly in the medical and pharmaceutical industries due to their biodegradability and biocompatibility. Their uses include sutures, patches, stents, tissue regeneration scaffolds, nerve guides, grafts, implants, wound dressings, and other medical products," Polymer Solutions reported on its blog.

Image credit: "Henry Ghausi Hall Labs," © 2011 UC Davis College of Engineering’s photostream, used under a Attribution 2.0 Generic license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/2.0/