In the UK it is estimated that five million tonnes of plastic is used every year, nearly half of which is packaging. Plastic waste can threaten wildlife, spread toxins and contribute to global warming. Students at Liverpool Life Sciences UTC have begun a new research project examining whether mealworms can digest plastic waste, potentially providing a solution to one of humanity’s greatest environmental challenges.
The year 9 students, known as the Real Meal Group, have been studying mealworm larvae under a scanning electron microscope (SEM) – a powerful microscope that scans a beam over an object to obtain information about its surface topography and composition – to investigate the digestive abilities of the animal. The college has been loaned the SEM in a partnership led by IRIS with Hitachi High Technology, the Natural History Museum, the Royal Microscopical Society and Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Kent.
So far, the young researchers have found traces of microplastic waste in the gut of mealworms. But they want to find out what proportion of the plastic waste is digested into harmless substances – previous research suggests it can be up to 50 per cent. Once they have completed their research, the students intend to develop a household plastic waste digester box that uses mealworm to break down non-recyclable plastic waste. Two students are designing the box itself using CAD software Autodesk Fusion 360, using data collected in their research to inform the design decisions.
Another student is looking into how people could access the box remotely and monitor and make changes from their smart phones. He is now focusing on the more technical aspects of this new challenge. Namely, how to connect a series of sensors to a microcomputer to monitor conditions in the digestor box and trigger heaters and fans to maintain temperature and humidity within optimal ranges for the mealworms.
Niamh, Liverpool UTC student and director for the Baltic Research Institute (BRI) – the first student-led research institute in the UK, is eager to promote the great research of her younger peers.
“The Year 9 students’ study presents an alternative and responsible way of disposing of our plastic waste, which would be extremely beneficial in terms of reducing the effects of climate change,” said Niamh.
Students also used the SEM to investigate hygiene standards within the college during the pandemic, examining door handles, light switches and sinks for dirt and microbes and identifying a suspected fungal colony on a keyboard.
“The SEM has given us opportunities for learning new skills and to gain experience for university. We have been able to use it for our Extended Project Qualifications (EPQs) and start our own independent research projects, which has been really interesting and has inspired new research-based EPQs,” said Charlotte, year 12 student from Liverpool Life Sciences UTC.