SD Mines Researchers Hope to Use Sanford Lab Extremophiles to Create Low-Cost Renewable and Biodegradable Polymers

Courtney Carlson, a senior majoring in Chemical Engineering at SD Mines (right) and researcher Navanietha Krishnaraj Rathinam, Ph.D., (left) work in the Chemical and Biological Engineering and Chemistry (CBEC) building at SD Mines. Carlson and Krishnaraj Rathinam are using benchtop reactors in the lab to perform CNAM-Bio research that seeks to optimize and scale-up the manufacturing of biopolymers from lignocellulosic biomass using extremophiles. The center is a scanning electron microscope image of the bacteria the research team are studying.

A team of researchers with the Composite and Nanocomposite Advanced Manufacturing – Biomaterials Center (CNAM), led by David Salem, Ph.D., at the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology are using microbes that were discovered deep underground in the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in an attempt to make low-cost plastics that are renewable and biodegradable.

“Most commercial polymers, or plastics are petroleum based which is a non-renewable resource,” says Salem. The team is working to find ways to mass manufacture low-cost plant based plastics and composites. “A problem with bio-based polymers is they are expensive, and one goal of this center is to use genetically engineered microbes to help reduce the cost of manufacturing these kinds of plastics,” says Salem. “Another goal is to engineer the properties of the biopolymers and biocomposites to serve a wide range of commercial applications.”

There is a huge potential for new green-based manufacturing jobs in the area if the center succeeds in developing mass manufacturing techniques for turning plants into low-cost bio-based polymers.

“The top ten petroleum based polymers make up about a $500-billion global market,” says Salem. “These biopolymers potentially can cover the whole range of properties of those.”

A group, led by Rajesh Sani, Ph.D., from SD Mines’ Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering, have isolated the SURF extremophiles, or rare microbes that originally evolved in the high temperature environment of the deep underground. This team is responsible for the biosynthesis activities of the center. The researchers are genetically engineering the extremophiles to help efficiently break down waste plant material (biomass), like corn stover and pine tree biomass, and generate low-cost biopolymers, or plastics. The microbes eat the plant material and produce polymers that can then be made into various types of bio-based plastics and lightweight and high-strength composites for industrial, consumer and biomedical applications.

“Petroleum based plastics are not degradable. But, bio-polymers are different, they will degrade over time instead of filling the landfills and oceans with debris,” says Salem.

South Dakota’s Research and Commercialization Council (RCC) through the Governor’s Research Center Program has awarded the SD Mines CNAM research $1,806,427 over five years to develop commercially-viable processes for manufacturing bio-polymers and high-performance bio-composites and bio-nanocomposites.

Last edited 6/28/2019 1:53:45 PM

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