Plastic to protein: Professor from U of I teams up with MTU to research ways to eliminate waste

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HOUGHTON, Mich. (WJMN) – Plastic into edible protein doesn’t sound very appetizing. However, Steve Techtmann says it’s not as crazy as it sounds.

Techtmann is an associate professor of biological sciences at Michigan Tech. In 2020, he was one of the researchers selected to turn military plastic waste into protein powder and lubricants.

Techtmann has been collaborating with Michigan Tech graduate students and colleagues, and Ting Lu, professor of bioengineering at the University of Illinois.

“We were trying to figure out a way of taking things that are considered waste things that we would throw away and turn it into something that is valuable,” said Techtmann. “And plastic is one of these wastes that we use all the time. It gets recycled sometimes, but a lot of that ends up in a landfill. What we were trying to see if whether or not we could use bacteria to help us convert that plastic into something valuable.

And bacterial cells are about half protein. So they have all the nutrients that we would really need in order to be used as a food […] People have been working on how we can use bacteria to break down plastics for a while. Converting that into food I think is novel and interesting.”

Techtmann’s research won him the 2021 Future Insight Prize by Merck KGaA, Darmstadt, Germany, with over $1 million awarded to continue his research.

“I split that with my collaborator at the University of Illinois. So we get half of that to do science here at Michigan Tech. So the money is for research, and it allows me to support some of the people that work with the graduate students in my lab.”

So how does turning plastic into protein work, exactly?

Techtmann explains the process of plastic to protein.

Techtmann said this research is just one of the ways Michigan Tech is making its mark.

“It’s very exciting to be a part of this at Michigan Tech. I think Michigan Tech is a unique place to do this kind of work because we have such diverse expertise. I think this also highlights the really exciting work that is happening at Michigan Tech and is able to show the world really the capabilities of what is going on here.”

The research will continue over the next four years, and the protein powder is expected to be used in the near future for emergency and disaster relief situations.

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