Circular bioplastics – it's now possible

The Swedish Centre for Resource Recovery at the University of Borås conducts research on producing PHA* from volatile fatty acids. Producing plastics from volatile fatty acids is a new area of research and it is hoped that these plastics will replace those made from oil. Today, there is a plethora of bioplastics on the market, such as those made from glucose from sugar cane. But making bioplastics from glucose is expensive. Moreover, using natural resources that could feed humans and animals to produce plastic is controversial. These plastics are also difficult to recycle, making them less profitable to produce. So how can we make a product that is recyclable as well as environmentally and economically sustainable?

Hoang Danh Vu had two goals for his work: first, he wanted to produce bioplastics by breaking down food waste into volatile fatty acids, and using bacteria to convert them into plastic. In the next step, he wanted to study how the same plastic can be broken down back into volatile fatty acids.

Grows without needing any extra nourishment

Today, Hoang Danh Vu says he has achieved both goals.

“We saw that the bacteria can consume the chemical compounds extracted from fermented food waste. They can grow without needing any extra nourishment. I am very happy with the positive results and, apart from the need to improve the process I have been working on, we can now say that a circular flow of sustainable PHA is possible," said Hoang Danh Vu.

He is part of a research community working on solutions to some of society's biggest problems.

“We all know the problems of plastic litter polluting the Earth. With this work, we present a possible solution to reduce the use of virgin oil-based plastics.”

Promising research

“The research is new but promising,” said Dan Åkesson, Associate Professor of Polymer Technology and Hoang Danh Vu's supervisor.

“If this type of bioplastic can be produced from volatile fatty acids instead of glucose, the price of the plastic could potentially be lower. Starting with volatile fatty acids could also fit into a future infrastructure where food and other organic waste is broken down into volatile fatty acids (VFA). These are then used to produce fuel and other materials.”

Hoang Danh Vu defended his doctoral thesis Volatile Fatty Acids as a Key to Sustainability and Circularity in Polyhydroxyalkanoates Production in Resource Recovery on 26 May. After four years of research training, he is looking forward to a much-needed holiday and time to reflect on the next steps in his career.

“No one would say that doing a doctorate is easy, but I am glad I chose this path and would do it again without hesitation. As a doctoral student, I have had both good and bad days. Besides the specialised knowledge I have gained, I have also trained myself to be persistent, patient, and positive at all times. It has shaped my personality and is something I take with me in the future," said Hoang Danh Vu.

*PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates) are biodegradable and compostable thermoplastics.

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More research on volatile fatty acids at the Swedish Centre for Resource Recovery

The research environment Swedish Centre for Resource Recovery