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Monday, October 18, 2021

UC Davis alumni engineer plastic out of poop

Micromidas, Inc., a company based in West Sacramento, is working on a project that literally turns waste into a usable plastic.

Incorporated in 2008, the company began as a research group at UC Davis. Undergraduate engineers, under the direction of civil engineering professor Frank Loge, received funding for the project through P3 – People, Prosperity and the Planet – a grant program by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“We were doing independent research to take on two really big issues,” said John Bissell, chief executive officer and founding member. Bissell graduated in 2008 as a chemical engineering major.

“Sludge is a really big issue, and there was also the problem of providing [biodegradable], sustainable plastics at a reasonable price,” Bissell said.

The Micromidas team uses sludge, the unwanted bio-solids left over at wastewater treatment plants, and turns it into polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA). This polyester can be turned into biodegradable plastic material.

To create PHA, the engineers developed microbes that process the carbon from the sludge.

“Basically, we want to have a large spread of wild-type bacteria,” said Wade Nielson, a bioprocess engineer. Like most of employees at Micromidas, Inc., Nielson is also a UC Davis alumnus. He graduated from in 2009 with honors in chemical engineering.

“Our target is to isolate wild-type bacteria that work well together and work with different ratios of bacteria to create teams,” Nielson said.

These teams of bacteria can turn sludge into usable forms of plastic in about 18 hours. The plastic can then be utilized for multiple uses, from automotive parts to biomedical tissue repair devices.

“There are some uses to the sludge right now, but they’re less efficient than what we’re hoping to do,” Nielson said.

Most of the sludge from wastewater treatment plants is converted to methane for energy, transported to landfills or incinerated. About 40 percent of the wastewater treatment plant’s budget goes toward disposing of this sludge.

Another problem that Micromidas would like to tackle is finding a suitable alternative to petroleum-based plastics. About 80 percent of these plastics are sent to landfills. Petroleum-based plastics take hundreds of years to degrade and become non-toxic.

There are currently alternatives to petroleum-based plastics on the market, but they are inefficient, Bissell said. Biodegradable plastic products such as polylactic acid (PLA) are produced from sugar or cellulose feedstock. Using these raw materials, however, can take away from other resources such as food supply.

Pricing is also an issue for these plastic alternatives.

“While (PLA) is a great plastic, its selling price is four times that of the petroleum-based plastic,” Bissell said. “Our product will be priced comparatively to petroleum-based plastic.”

With the $1 billion alternative plastic market growing at 18 percent annually, Micromidas, Inc. plans on having their first bio-refinery plant up and running in late 2012 or early 2013.

SARAHNI PECSON can be reached at city@theaggie.org.

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