Science and technology

A groundbreaking discovery by researchers offers a novel approach to producing bioplastics by harnessing the potential of insects. Scientists have successfully isolated and purified chemicals derived from insects and transformed them into functional bioplastics, representing a significant step towards sustainable and eco-friendly materials.

Dr. Karen Wooley, the project's principal investigator, explained that the team has spent two decades developing methods to convert natural products, like glucose from sugar cane or trees, into degradable polymers that do not linger in the environment.

However, these natural sources often compete with food, fuel, and other essential industries. Seeking alternatives that circumvent these challenges, Dr. Wooley's colleague, Dr. Jeffery Tomberlin, suggested exploring waste products from farming black soldier flies – a rapidly growing industry he has been closely involved in.

Black soldier fly larvae contain a wealth of proteins and nutritious compounds, making them valuable for animal feed and waste consumption. Adults, in contrast, have a short lifespan after breeding and are usually discarded. Capitalizing on this insight, the researchers utilized the carcasses of adult flies as their starting material, transforming waste into a valuable resource.

Cassidy Tibbetts, a graduate student working on the project, discovered that the adult fly carcasses contained chitin, a biodegradable polymer derived from sugar that strengthens the exoskeleton of insects and crustaceans. Tibbetts developed an extraction process that produced chitin powder with improved purity and characteristics, potentially addressing concerns related to seafood allergies.

Unlike previous research that often focused on isolating compounds from larvae, Wooley's team is the first to extract chitin from discarded adult flies. Hongming Guo, another graduate student involved in the project, is converting the purified chitin into chitosan, a similar polymer, through a chemical process. Chitosan can then be transformed into useful bioplastics, such as superabsorbent hydrogels, which can absorb vast amounts of water.

Guo's hydrogel can absorb 47 times its weight in water within one minute. This technology could have applications in cropland soil, capturing floodwater and releasing it slowly during droughts, addressing the challenges of Texas' fluctuating weather patterns. Furthermore, because the hydrogel is biodegradable, it can gradually release nutrients to nourish crops.

The team's next phase involves degrading chitin into monomeric glucosamines, small sugar molecules that can be used to produce traditional bioplastics like polycarbonates and polyurethanes. The researchers intend to leverage the diverse array of compounds found in black soldier flies, including proteins, DNA, fatty acids, lipids, and vitamins, to create sustainable and degradable materials that contribute to reducing plastic pollution.

Dr. Wooley envisions a circular economy concept where insects consume waste plastic as a food source, and their components are harvested to create new plastics. "So the insects would not only be the source, but they would also then consume the discarded plastics," she explained, highlighting a future where nature's processes drive innovation towards a greener world.