U.S. Military Bioengineering Plastic Fuels

Most of the time when we bring you a story involving the U.S. Department of Defense’s secretive research agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), you can bet it’s going to be something out of the ordinary. And this one’s no exception.

This time around, DARPA is interested in tapping into the waste generated by the military’s refuse as an on-site fuel source. They want many basic materials used, and subsequently thrown out by the military to be designed specifically for end-use as a fuel source. In this pursuit, DARPA awarded a contract to a company called DNA 2.0, and a Polytechnic University Professor to focus research efforts on the engineering of fuel-latent plastics and their post-use conversion to a fuel useful for electricity generation in the field. This program has now been dubbed the Mobile Integrated Sustainable Energy Recovery (MISER) program. MISER’s goal is to improve the logistics and cost of land-based operations by reducing the quantities of solid waste from packaging materials that require personnel, fuel, and critical transport equipment for removal. According to DNA 2.0, most plastic packaging has an energy content that approaches that of diesel fuel. The DARPA grant is designed specifically to achieve nearly complete plastic packaging waste reduction while harnessing 90 percent of the packaging energy content for use in electricity generation. “Plastic waste is ubiquitous, degrades extremely slowly and is a major pollutant even in remote ocean areas,” said Jeremy Minshull, president at DNA 2.0. Who would have known the military might be so interested in exerting its worldwide muscle in a sustainable way? Minshull said the key issues with current biodegradable plastics are that they must have comparable physical properties to the plastics they seek to replace. The company will be working with Professor Gross of Polytechnic University, New York, who specializes in the intersection between biology and polymer chemistry. Professor Gross is the primary recipient of the grant and is responsible for the design and testing of the polymer, while DNA 2.0 will design and develop the enzymes used for the biological route to production. The polymer will have properties similar to polyethylene and will be prepared from renewable resources with a cost comparable to current commercially manufactured plastics, according to Minshull. “Best of all, they will have the potential for a second use as fuels,” Minshull said.
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