Monthly Archives: May 2008

Science Fair Project Isolates Plastic-Eating Microbes

[from Geekdad] In the spirit of the awesome maverick science-fair project[1], I give you Daniel Burd and his amazing plastic-eating microbes.

“Almost every week I have to do chores and when I open the closet door, I have this avalanche of plastic bags falling on top of me,” he said. “One day, I got tired of it and I wanted to know what other people are doing with these plastic bags.”The answer: not much. So he decided to do something himself.

He knew plastic does eventually degrade, and figured microorganisms must be behind it. His goal was to isolate the microorganisms that can break down plastic — not an easy task because they don’t exist in high numbers in nature.

Daniel proceeded to use iterated experiments and the good old scientific method to extract the most effective bacteria and determine the optimal conditions for degrading polyethylene bags. The result was an amazing 43% degradation over six weeks, much better than the thousand years it would ordinarily take to break down the plastic. (Be sure to read the whole story for some inspiring bits of detective work.)

The best part?

Industrial application should be easy, said Burd. “All you need is a fermenter . . . your growth medium, your microbes and your plastic bags.”

The inputs are cheap, maintaining the required temperature takes little energy because microbes produce heat as they work, and the only outputs are water and tiny levels of carbon dioxide — each microbe produces only 0.01 per cent of its own infinitesimal weight in carbon dioxide, said Burd.

Well done, Daniel. I hope to see a plastic-bag compost bin on the market in a few years, or at least a Wired How-To on making one for myself. (via Mother Jones)

[1] See my previous mention of homemade aerogels. Kids these days!

Loretta Whitesides is just plain cool

[I'm going to start posting some of my GeekDad articles over here, so you'll know when new ones are available. Let me know if this is unnecessary duplication.]

I had the pleasure of meeting Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides at a SEDS UCSD talk the other day. It quickly became obvious that she’s one of Our People, and a successful one at that. From the GeekDad interview article (my first ever):

Loretta Hidalgo Whitesides sees the future of space in the eyes of students. Not as the “coveted 18-24 demographic”, but as leaders of the new space industry. To her, space-interested science and engineering students in high school and college right now are “one in a million,” and she wants them to train to be the next Buzz Aldrin, Sally Ride, Burt Rutan, or Elon Musk.

She should know. As an astrobiologist, Virgin Galactic advisor, Wired blogger, and Zero G flight director, she’s seen her share of the Right Stuff. She’s followed James Cameron to the bottom of the ocean and led 70,000 people to a party at NASA. Space is personal for her, too: she and her husband, National Space Society director George T. Whitesides, will honeymoon on one of the first Virgin Galactic suborbital flights.

Check out the rest of the interview and let me know if I should hang up my press hat. ;)

Jonathan Coulton in San Diego tomorrow night

He’s here, so I’m there! Jonathan Coulton will be performing with Paul and Storm on Saturday, May 17th at Lestat’s in Normal Heights. Details (as per usual) are at Eventful.

The show’s at 9pm, and tickets are being sold at the door for an undisclosed sum somewhere around $10. I’ll probably get there around 8:30, or earlier if I find out that Jonathan is sitting at the bar by himself like the last time. (grumble grumble House of Blues grumble.)