With nearly 200,000 fast food restaurants serving billions of customers, America generates a lot of used cooking oil. Just like the oil that accumulates in your frying pan, this grease can’t just be dumped down the drain. To do so would actually be a crying shame. Some people have started using it to power their vehicles, and its been suggested that this nasty by-product of fried food could also hold the key to better, cheaper bioplastics.

According to research presented at the 2012 Society for General Microbiology’s Autumn Conference, that using waste cooking oil as a starting material reduces production costs while still producing medical-grade bioplastic.

waste cooking oil
Image via ekilby/Flickr

Bioplastics are petroleum-free materials naturally synthesized by microbes. In order to produce large quantities of bioplastic, bacteria are grown in large fermenters because glucose is used as a starting material. This process is effective, but very expensive, prohibiting the wide-spread use of bioplastic.

Researchers at the University of Wolverhampton discovered that using cooking oil as the starting material instead of glucose can actually be more effective, while making use of a difficult waste substance.

“Our bioplastic-producing bacterium, Ralstonia eutropha H16, grew much better in oil over 48 hours and consequently produced three times more PHB than when it was grown in glucose,” Victor Irorere who carried out the research, said in a press release. “Electrospinning experiments, performed in collaboration with researchers from the University of Birmingham, showed that nanofibres of the plastic produced from oils were also less crystalline, which means the plastic is more suited to medical applications.”

Poly 3-hydroxybutyrate, also known as PHB, is the most commonly produced polymer in the Polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) family of polyesters.

If they can scale up the process, this research breakthrough could be good news for those needing medical implants or prosthesis. Since using waste cooking oil dramatically reduces the cost of bioplastic production, those savings could be passed on to patients.

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