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NCNU team TCG TECH combats plastics crisis with biodegradable tech

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Lu Meng-shan (呂孟珊), a Ph.D. candidate with National Chi Nan University (NCNU), has uncovered a way to transform sludge to proverbial gold. This discovery led to the formation of TCG TECH, an academic collective comprising Lu and fellow NCNU students Yang Chih-chi (楊智其), Chang Yu-chen (張育禎), Lu Yao-chih (呂曜志), and Hsu Hao (徐顥). Their applications of Lu's research have led to greener technology such as eco-friendly plastics, becoming shortlisted by the Taiwan's Ministry of Science and Technology as a potential recipient of its startup funds in the process.

The over-production and improper disposal of plastic products are not only aggravating climate change but also destroying the world's marine ecosystems; ocean mammals such as sea turtles and dolphins are among those the worst-hit by this century's plastics crisis. Apart from lessening our dependency on fossil fuels and banning the offer of free plastics, biodegradable alternatives are vital to reversing these alarming trends. Corn-based plastics have found the most commercial success thus far, but TCG TECH's innovative method of deriving plastic supplements from sludge is attractive for its time-effectiveness and resource-efficiency.

The average human adult consumes about 250 liters of clean water while generating up to 200 liters of polluted water in just one day. That means Taiwan's population of 23 million produces enough dirty water to fill the Shimen Reservoir every half month. However, Lu's work looks into developing biodegradable plastics technology by reusing the polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) extracted from activated sludge, and Taiwan happens to also produce up to 2.435 million metric tons of that per year, according to 2019 figures.

PHAs are natural, biodegradable polyesters that can be made by activating sludge or similar organic waste for synthesis. TCG TECH's research is reflective of modern demands, in which the price of waste treatment has more than doubled — from NT$7,000 to NT$15,000 per metric ton — in recent years. European Bioplastics, an association representing the interests of the bioplastics industry in Europe, boldly predicts a meteoric industry growth of 1,000% within the next five years, which is ten times the capacity of today's global PHA production.

"With the combined costs of transportation and cleanup [of waste] that high, we might as well sort it ourselves, using the PHAs to create biodegradable plastics for everyone to use," points out Lu. "It's commercially viable and good for the environment." Government incentives and growing consumer eco-awareness should facilitate the worldwide adoption of such greener alternatives, she adds.

NCNU's College of Science and Technology and TCG TECH have devoted 14 years to refining PHA technology. Researchers focus on identifying blind spots, new frontiers, and market demands, whereas the university provides the resources, technical infrastructure, and industry networks needed for expansion. TCG TECH founding member Yang compares the assistance to a shining lantern in the dark, one that glows with warmth and lights the way forward.

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