Profs Hall, Velev and Crook Receive Major Grant to Develop Systems for Removing Microplastic Ocean Waste

This is a modified version of an article written by Matt Shipman, Research Lead in University Communications.

An article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences states that, “There are certain human environmental perturbations so major that they are capable of destabilizing the earth’s normal function at a global scale (1). These so-called planetary boundary threats include climate change, ozone depletion, and ocean acidification. Emerging as a novel addition to this list is the vast quantity of discarded plastic waste that is accumulating in the oceans on an unprecedented scale, where it breaks down to form microscopic and nanoscopic fragments, or microplastics.

“Microplastics (particles with a diameter <1 mm, with no lower limit) derive from progressive fragmentation of larger plastic items, or may be manufactured to be of a small size, for use in personal care products, medicines, and industry (2).”

Professors Carol Hall, Orlin Velev and Nathan Crook and their colleagues at Cornell University are working to develop a self-sustaining system that uses microplastic “microcleaners” to remove microplastic waste from Earth’s oceans. The work is being funded by a four-year, 2 million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Prof. Hall is the Principal Investigator (PI) while Profs. Velev and Crook are co-PI’s.

“You can’t filter the sea – it’s too big,” says Prof. Hall. “The scale of the problem means that we need to develop revolutionary new methods to remove microplastics from seawater. So that’s our goal.” Hall is the Camille Dreyfus Distinguished University Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering and leads the project along with Dr. Nicholas Abbott, Tisch University Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Cornell.

Schematic of dendritic microplastic cleaner
Concept of the microcleaning particles

The idea is to create a circular system. The starting point would involve creating “microcleaning particles” that microplastics would stick to, likely using peptides designed by the Hall group and so-called “soft dendritic materials” pioneered by the lab of Prof. Velev. Velev is the S. Frank and Doris Culberson Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering.

“The idea is that these microcleaning particles would grab the microplastics, collapse in on themselves, and then float to the surface – where you could pick them up,” Velev says.

The microcleaning particles and microplastics would then be fed into a bioreactor, which would break down the microplastics and use the resulting byproducts to create new microcleaning particles (and possibly other useful materials).

How would that work?

“The research community has already identified microorganisms capable of breaking down plastics into various byproducts,” says Prof. Crook. “We plan to build on that knowledge, modifying a marine microorganism to degrade plastic.

“At the very least, we would like the microorganism to be able to use the plastic as a source of energy, allowing it to grow and reproduce – because that would at least convert the plastic into something biodegradable. But we’re planning to modify the marine microorganism so that it produces chemicals that we can use as feedstock for producing more microcleaning particles, which can then be used to capture more microplastics.

“Ultimately, we want to see if we can use this approach to turn microplastics into chemicals that have commercial value for either manufacturing or pharmaceutical applications,” Crook says. “Literally turning trash into something valuable.”

To control and optimize this complex process, the group has teamed up with Dr. Fengqi You, the Roxanne E. and Michael J. Zak Professor in Energy Systems Engineering at Cornell, who is an expert in advanced machine learning and AI techniques.

The work is being done with support from the NSF Emerging Frontiers in Research and Innovation program, under grant EFMA-2029327.

References

  1. Steffen W, et al. Sustainability. Planetary boundaries: Guiding human development on a changing planet. Science. 2015;347(6223):1259855. [PubMed] [Google Scholar]
  2. Andrady A. Persistence of plastic litter in the oceans. In: Bergmann M, Gutow L, Klages M, editors. Marine Anthropogenic Litter. Springer; Cham, Switzerland: 2015. pp. 57–72. [Google Scholar]