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 the Royal Microscopical Society, the Natural History Museum, Hitachi High Technology and Oxford Instruments.
So far, the young researchers have found traces of microplastic waste in the gut of mealworms. They now 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 plastics. Two students are designing the box using CAD software Autodesk Fusion 360.
Another student is looking into how people could remotely monitor the box and make changes from their smart phones. This involves working out 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.
The opportunity allowed students to gain new research skills and knowledge, including how to use a scanning electron microscope. With an estimated five million tonnes of plastics used every year in the UK, this research project also allowed the students to use science in a creative, yet practical way which could provide real benefits to the world around them.
“The 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, Liverpool UTC student and director for the Baltic Research Institute (BRI) – the first student-led research institute in the UK.