ISS Sustainability Challenge winners seek to tackle plastic pollution


The new winners of the International Space Station’s Beyond Plastics Sustainability Challenge set out to tackle plastic pollution.

One of the benefits of space research is its ability to contribute to sustainable development efforts on Earth, and last week the International Space Station (ISS) has taken an important step in supporting this mission. Two of the winners of the Sustainability Challenge: Beyond Plastics competition were announced as part of the 11e annual ISS research and development conference last week. Winning projects will have the opportunity to launch their research on the space station itself, using the unique microgravity environment to advance scientific efforts to reduce plastic waste here on Earth.


The challenge invited proposals focused on solving the current global problem of plastic waste. Winning the challenge is desirable not only because the honor comes with funding from ISS partner Estée Lauder, but also because the ISS lab provides researchers with access to the space environment in a way that few labs can. Challenge winners can develop, test or mature products and processes in orbit. The Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc., which operates the ISS National Laboratory, has selected projects aimed at reducing the volume of plastic waste entering the environment, identifying methods of producing plastic at beyond petrochemicals and reduce the need to produce plastic in the first place.

Related: This Incredible ISS Photo Shows The Spacecraft In All Its Beauty

Green technology in space is a booming industry, and the ISS National Laboratory announced that the two winning projects both focus on reducing the flow of plastic waste in innovative ways. The first, led by Dr. Stephen Meckler of the Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), aims to study the synthesis in microgravity of aerogel copolymers. The second, by Dr. Katrina Knauer and her team at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the BOTTLE Consortium, considers the biological recycling of plastic waste.

Spotlight on winning projects

Photo via NASA-ISS.

The first project, Microgravity Synthesis of Airgel Copolymers, focuses primarily on improving existing methods of carbon capture. Aerogels are a class of incredibly lightweight solid foam materials. Although they have many uses, they are mainly used as insulators. Aerogels have long been touted as a possible solution to many environmental problems, including as a method of capturing carbon. Aerogels can potentially remove certain pollutants threatening the environment and human health by adsorption. In other words, aerogels can potentially convert an unwanted gas into a less harmful solid. The Meckler team’s project will look at ways to capture carbon dioxide in airgel copolymers and then use that CO2 as feedstock for making base polymers. Aerogels are so effective because of their chemical structure. Meckler’s team believe that studying how aerogels form in microgravity – without the convective forces of the Earth – will allow them to improve their formulation and manufacturing processes and produce an airgel capable of absorbing about twice as much of CO2.

The second project, No Carbon Left Behind: Biological Recycling of Plastic Waste, examines bacterial strains that break down plastics and produce polymer building blocks. With companies like Amazon contributing to plastic pollution, solutions for recycling packaging waste and making their production less harmful are more important than ever. Knauer and his collaborators are curious if and how space radiation and microgravity influence bacterial behaviors. Current recycling technologies rely on the separation of plastics, so many mixed plastics are rejected by facilities and sent to landfills. This project aims to use bacteria to convert mixed plastics into high-value biopolymers already used in packaging. The team hypothesizes that the effects of microgravity will produce microbial strains with optimized metabolism and carbon efficiency and that these strains can be exploited and replicated on Earth.

The ISS has long provided a crucial microgravity research environment for scientists from various institutions. As a public utility, the facility supports projects from US government agencies, academic institutions, and the private sector. After the dismantling of the ISS in 2030 and the delegation of space stations in low orbit to private companies, it remains to be seen whether such valuable research still has access to the microgravity environment.

Next: A network of international ocean space stations is underway

Source: ISS National Laboratory

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