Breaking down plastics

Image of microbial cells and biopolymer granules (bar 500 nm).
Image of microbial cells and biopolymer granules (bar 500 nm).
In a world where plastic bags and plastic bottles are consumed in the millions annually, the fight to reduce such waste seems a daunting battle. Consumers are doing their part by becoming more socially aware about these environmental issues and making a conscientious effort to buy products and technology that are sustainable and eco-friendly. In response, Jian Yu, an associate researcher with UH Mānoa’s Hawaii Natural Energy Institute, and his team, are creating new technology to meet the increasing demands in the marketplace.

Yu’s research has led to the creation of thermoplastic materials from renewable feedstocks, such as agricultural wastes and food processing byproducts. The bio-based plastics, called PHA (polyhydroxyalkonoate) bioplastics, are completely biodegradable and biocompatible, whereas their petroleum-based counterparts are not. Petroleum-based plastics are not biodegradable and eventually find their way to the open seas, killing hundreds of thousands of birds, fish and other marine animals every year. “Compared to the conventional plastics, bioplastics consume less fossil energy and release much less greenhouse gases as indicated by numerous life-cycle analysis,” said Yu.

Biodegradable plastics were introduced about 20 years ago when a biochemical company had a successful pilot production of the biopolyesters from glucose and propionic acid. The bioplastics were used to make various goods such as shampoo bottles, credit cards, syringes and containers.  While its ecofriendly properties were groundbreaking at the time, the high costs associated with producing the product prevented it from being widely marketed.

A chemical/biochemical engineer by training, Yu was excited by the research that could lead to new technologies to bring down the high cost of production.  “I first investigated if cheap but complicated raw materials such as food scraps could be used for biopolymer production by microbial organisms,” said Yu.

His research was successful and gained recognition from his peers, including a published paper in Environmental Science and Technology in 2002. “Now, the technology has been used for other cheap feedstocks, such as sugar molasses, a residue from sugar manufacturers, and crude glycerol waste discharged from biodiesel production,” shared Yu. “We are able to achieve a very high special productivity rate for commercial production.”

Yu’s PHA bioplastics technology consists of three parts, including (1) pretreatment of feedstocks into suitable substrates for a special type of microbial organism, (2) high cell density fermentation for biosynthesis of biopolyesters, and (3) solvent-free recovery and purification of biopolyesters to make the final product of bioplastics.

At the end of fermentation process, their cells can accumulate 60-70 percent biopolyester of their mass.  In order to purify the biopolymer for bioplastics, the rest of the 30-40 percent of residual cell mass must be removed in a cost effective way. One conventional technology relies on organic solvent extraction, which is not only expensive, but also environmentally unfriendly. “We developed a new technology in which no organic solvent is needed, and at the same time, the cell debris generated from recovery process can be reused in biopolymer production,” added Yu.

The technology shows real potential. He already has a commercialization plan in place and has filed two patents on the technology, which is being used in a pilot plant in Europe. “The pilot plant has been built up according to our specifications and has been running successfully, providing data for scaling up to a commercial production,” said Yu. The company that operates the plant has invested $2 million to establish a central testing center in Honolulu, Hawaii, that will provide characterization and analysis service to its global manufacturing and markets.

In terms of waste reduction, Hawaii will see the benefits of Yu’s research. With large quantities of biomass generated by the state every year, the “green garbage” can be used as renewable feedstocks to make the bioplastics using their biorefining technologies.  “We have no oil resource for a petrochemical industry, but it is highly possible to have a manufacturing industry based on its plentiful renewable resources,” added Yu.

Although the price to make bioplastics is still higher than those of oil-based plastics, Yu believes his research will lead to technologies that can reduce the high production cost and bring the bioplastics to the consumers at a competitive price, in hopes of averting a mass environmental disaster. “The product exhibits good properties and can compete with similar products if the production cost can be reduced to a level widely accepted in the markets,” said Yu. Until then, consumers can count on more green products to hit the marketplace for years to come.

For more information, visit the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute website at

For more about the exciting research now being conducted at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa read Inspiration to Innovation – the Chancellorʻs Report 2011-2012 (pdf).

Top photo: Yu sits in front of a bench top bioreactor in which microbial cells are cultivated for biopolymer production.

Charting new space frontiers

Using an ion microprobe, HIGP scientists seek to understand the earliest events in our Solar System by studying the isotopic composition of meteorites.

Although NASA’s space shuttle program may have come to an end, the excitement has not dwindled for researchers and faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa who have been actively involved in the exploration of the Solar System for more than 30 years.  The planetary and remote sensing programs within the School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology’s Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology (HIGP) have had a long history in working with NASA to send robotic spacecraft to explore the planets, including missions to Mercury, Moon and Mars.

Seven HIGP faculty members are currently members of the science teams of spacecraft in orbit around Mercury, the Moon and Mars.  For example, Jeffrey Gillis-Davis is a member of the MESSENGER Team exploring Mercury as well as the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter radar team investigating the Moon.  Jeffrey Taylor, an expert on the geochemistry of planets, compares compositional differences of Mars and the Moon in order to see how these worlds differ from the Earth.  Paul Lucey studies the Moon using thermal infrared data to not only search for differences in rock compositions but also studies the temperature differences of the surface between the day- and night-sides of the Moon. Computer models and laboratory experiments involving lava flows are the particular interests of Sarah Fagents.


“The researchers search for signs of former water on the surface of the Red Planet, investigate the geologic processes in the earliest parts of the history of the planet Mercury, and map impact craters and volcanic rocks on the Moon,” said HIGP Director Peter Mouginis-Mark.  “HIGP is actively involved in designing new instruments that might fly to the Moon within the next decade, as well as fly instruments in Earth orbit to study analog terrains.”  Venus is another planetary target of great interest to HIGP, with faculty members conducting research that would bring new measurement techniques for spacecraft that might one day land on the surface, as well as map the surface from orbit in unprecedented detail.

One of HIGP's star planetary scientists, G. Jeffrey Taylor, recently won the prestigious Shoemaker Award from NASA for his outstanding contributions to lunar petrology and geochemistry.

Graduate students of the HIGP program have also made a mark for themselves in planetary research. “Former HIGP students are now in charge of instruments in orbit around Saturn, an ultra-high-resolution camera in orbit around the Moon, and the cameras on the robotic vehicles driving over the surface of Mars,” shared Mouginis-Mark.  “Our former graduate students have been instrumental in studying asteroids from the NEAR and Dawn missions, and they are targeting cameras on lunar spacecraft to identify the most interesting volcanic features and impact craters!”


The planetary program at HIGP offers a wide range of courses, ranging from an introduction to the Solar System for freshmen undergraduates to specific courses on the geochemistry and physics of the planets.  Field analysis of analog sites for the Moon and Mars is particularly popular with the students.  Because the active Kilauea volcano is one of the most similar volcanoes on Earth to the ones that are found on Mars, HIGP routinely runs workshops on the Big Island to introduce students to the ways that lava flows and craters form, and how they appear in satellite data that are comparable to the measurements made from spacecraft in orbit around Mars, the Moon and the moon of Jupiter called Io.

Central to HIGP’s planetary mission is the ability to study rocks from space.  Using world-class facilities in the W.M. Keck Foundation’s Cosmochemistry Laboratory, faculty and students study the isotopic composition of meteorites from the asteroids and Mars.  “They search for minerals found during the very first few million years of Solar System history, not only to understand how the planets formed, but also to search for materials that originated from other stars and that were then included within the rocks that we now study on Earth,” explained Mouginis-Mark.  Particles from the Sun are also investigated by HIGP faculty and students through their detailed analysis of particles returned to Earth by the Stardust spacecraft.


Finding meteorites is another aspect of HIGP’s planetary research.  Over the years, more than a dozen faculty members, post-docs and graduate students have traveled to Antarctica, camping for up to six weeks on the frozen continent so that they can search for rocks from space.  HIGP members have found hundreds of meteorites over the last two decades, adding not only to our own research, but also contributing significantly to the national collection of samples from space.

Mouginis-Mark is excited for the future of planetary exploration. “NASA has just put the Dawn spacecraft into orbit around the asteroid Vesta, the Mars rover ‘Opportunity’ is perched on the rim of a big meteorite crater, and amazing things are being found on the Moon with the high resolution camera,” said Mouginis-Mark.  “All of these opportunities will significantly help further build HIGP’s planetary research.”

Looking to the future, HIGP is working with colleagues in Canada and England to get a new mission to the Moon funded.  HIGP would play a major role in the science goals of this mission, as well as instrument development and the landing of the spacecraft.

For more information on planetary space missions and the Hawaii Institute of Geophysics and Planetology, visit

Top photo: Kilauea volcano provides an outstanding opportunity for students to learn about volcanic processes that have also shaped the Moon, Mars and Venus.



Fueled by a cell

Rick E. Rocheleau, HNEI Director
Imagine powering your car with a fuel that doesn’t pollute and will never be depleted.  In a state-of-the-art test lab in downtown Honolulu, University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa researchers are turning such a dream into a revved-up reality.

The Hawai‘i Fuel Cell Test Facility (HFCTF), operated by the Hawai‘i Natural Energy Institute (HNEI) on the Mānoa campus, opened its doors in 2003 to help turn the 50th State into a world leader in hydrogen power. Today, the secure 4,000-square-foot facility ranks among the best academic laboratories in the nation—concentrating on the testing of fuel cells for commercial and military applications, in keeping with its mission to accelerate their acceptance and deployment.

A fuel cell, according to HNEI Director Rick Rocheleau, is an electrochemical energy conversion device that directly converts chemical energy into electricity without the need for combustion.  “Fuel cells are similar in many ways to a battery,” explains Rocheleau.  “In both, electrons generated at one electrode, circulate in an external circuit to the other producing electrical power which can drive, for example, an electric motor.  However, while battery electrodes are consumed in the process, the fuel and oxidant for fuel cells are supplied from an external source.”

HFCTF primarily focuses its efforts on the Proton Exchange Membrane (PEM) fuel cell, which operates on hydrogen and air or oxygen.  PEM fuel cells can be used for automobiles, for small stationary applications such as back-up power, and defense applications that include unmanned aerial and undersea vehicles.

HFCTF has continued to expand its facilities and capabilities with funding support from its partners, including the Office of Naval Research, the US Department of Energy, and a variety of industry partners..  The test facility started with two test stands in 2003 and now houses a dozen test stands including several for testing of small stacks (ca 5kW).  It also boasts a host of supporting equipment including on-site hydrogen generation, on-line high resolution gas analysis, and sophisticated spatial performance measurements. These advanced capabilities allow for long-term life testing and cell performance characterization over a wide range of operating conditions.

Researchers at HNEI have just completed a large project to understand the impact of fuel contaminants on fuel cell performance, and another to detect and understand the impact of localized non-uniformities in membrane electrode assemblies originating from manufacturing variations. They are now currently working on the effects of contaminants from different sources (in atmospheric air or released from fuel cell system materials) on fuel cell performance and degradation.  Other projects in the works include an evaluation to understand the performance of PEM fuel cell power plants for unmanned aerial and underwater vehicles fed with oxygen/nitrogen mixtures, as well as exploring the use of fuel cell technology to separate helium from helium/hydrogen mixtures, in partnership with NASA and Sierra Lobo.

If that’s not enough, future projects for HFCTF researchers also include more fundamental research on catalyst development to increase the expensive platinum catalyst utilization and new techniques to understand the transport of reactants within the porous electrodes of the fuel cell.  In support of this work, HFCTF is acquiring additional testing equipment, including a rotating ring/disc electrode system that precisely controls hydrodynamic conditions and allows the extraction of the intrinsic catalyst performance, and a unique tracer system to precisely measure the amount of product liquid water in flow field channels and gas diffusion electrodes.

U.S. Sen. Daniel Inouye is credited for helping to jump-start the facility as part of his position with the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. Over the years, he has continued to back the program along with U.S. Sen. Daniel Akaka, both of whom are instrumental in supporting the U.S. Department of Energy and the Office of Naval Research to allow funding of these valuable research efforts.

The facility continues to seek new projects to advance fuel cell technology for commercial applications and support integration of these technologies in Hawai‘i and beyond. “Commercial interest worldwide for transportation applications and U.S. Department of Defense interest appears very strong,” says Rocheleau.  “In the U.S., General Motors and others in the industry remain very positive about the opportunity for fuel cells to contribute in the energy and transportation sectors.”

For more information on the Hawaii Natural Energy Institute and the Hawaii Fuel Cell Test Facility, visit

Top photo:The Hawaii Fuel Cell Test Facility in downtown Honolulu, where fuel cells for military and commercial applications are tested.

The HFCTF testing area.