Travis Williams is a professor of chemistry at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences whose research focuses on using tools from inorganic, organic, and analytical chemistry to solve problems in synthesis, catalysis, and medicine. Williams’ research group is currently designing catalytic systems for synthetic fuels and fine chemicals to reclaiming value from waste polymers and materials.
Making Medicine from Garbage in the Ocean
Plastic milk jugs… plastic grocery bags… polystyrene carry out containers… almost all of it ends up in the pacific ocean. According to NOAA …. Last time they checked… eight million metric tons of plastic ended up in the ocean. That’s the weight of almost 90 aircraft carriers.
The EPA estimates only about six percent is recycled.
It’s floating in the pacific… a garbage patch twice the size of Texas.
What are we gonna do about it? How about turning it into life-saving medications. My colleague Clay Wang and i are faculty at USC. He’s pharmacy, I’m chemistry.
Let’s start with the problem. Poyethylene … the same thing that makes plastic products durable… useful … and sterile… makes them tough to recycle. That leaves us with an marine-life killing island.
Here’s our solution.
We collect small pieces of the patch… bring it back to our labs… and … in a bit of alchemy… turn it into the building blocks of pharmaceuticals and pesticices.
We start with scraps of polyethylene based plastic that washes up on catalina island of the southern california coast.
We break those plastics down with chemical catalysts and pressurized oxygen to produce chemical groups called diacids …. In this case… asperbenzaldehyde… citreoviridin… and mutilin. Then…. Those diacids are used to engineer strains of aspergillus nidulans. That’s a fungus that’s easy to engineer.
It’s used in pharmaceutical development .So ultimately… a fungus created from the pacific garbage patch could be used to make antibiotics… anti-cholesterol drugs… anti-fungals… all within a week. That makes the pacific garbage patch a source of valuable materials…. Giving us a profitable motive to pull the patch apart… a scrap at a time.