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Student Turns Vegetable Oil Into Biodegradable Plastics

Student startup turns vegetable oil into renewable fuels and biodegradable plastics

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Postdoctoral student Zhiyao Lu leads Catapower, a startup that designed a molecular robot to turn vegetable oil into renewable fuels and biodegradable plastic.

This year, Lu earned the top 2018 Wrigley Sustainability Prize in an annual competition that promotes eco-friendly business concepts. From that, Catapower was selected for the National Science Foundation Innovation Corps program, which aims to foster national innovation beyond the laboratory. The I-Corps program has provided Lu’s team with training on technology commercialization, as well as providing research and development funds.

“Our idea at the time was to turn this waste into a biodegradable plastic to replace the plastic currently in the market,” Lu said.

As chemists, Lu’s team wanted to tackle the rise of greenhouse gases and the filling of plastic waste in the ocean. The team began to research biofuels and realized that the largest issue was the excessive waste generated during manufacturing.

To combat the issue, they considered biodegradable plastic, which decomposes naturally in the environment through living organisms such as bacteria. Lu’s team wanted to make an impact in the society, and to do so, they decided to commercialize the new technology in July 2017.

“When I first started the research, I purely looked at it as an academic research problem,” Lu said. “Then, I realized there is great market potential and I wanted to know what people think of the technology, what customers really need.”

Lu said that commercialization has been a complex process. He said that it has become difficult to get companies to accommodate the new technology.

“To effect change in this industry, we have to be able to convince people to think differently,” Lu said.

Catapower plans to expand its business by helping manufacturers implement their technology on a larger scale, recruiting more customers and helping non-biofuel industries such as the wax and cosmetic industries, which deal with products from vegetable oil.

“If people don’t think we can make the ground-shaking technology in the traditional research areas, then they’re wrong,” Lu said. “I think the future direction for the company is not only to scale up the technology we have now  but also to advance more clean technologies to make the world a better place, to preserve the environment and to improve the quality of life.”

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