A high school student in Waterloo, Ontario, may have discovered a way to accelerate biodegradation of polyethylene film.
Daniel Burd won the Canada-wide Science Fair with his invention, a feat that netted him a C$10,000 (US$10,080) top prize and C$20,000 (US$20,160) scholarship.
Burd got the idea for the experiment when faced with avalanches of plastic bags when he opened the cleaning cupboard at his home when he did chores.
``I got real tired of it,'' Burd said in a telephone interview from his school, Waterloo Collegiate Institute. ``I found out we're not doing much to solve it.''
In December 2006 Burd got started on his project. First he ground up new shopping bags to get a PE powder. Then he mixed the powder with nutrients and soil samples from local landfills. The intention was to develop an inoculating solution containing bacteria that rely on the PE for their carbon source.
Burd then took three months to increase the concentration of the PE-eating microbes. He used the resulting liquid to treat PE film strips and after six weeks found the strips lost 17 percent of their weight.
Burd then isolated four different bacteria in an agar culture and identified them to genus. He found that two of the strains work together to cause a 32 percent weight loss in PE strips. This was the highlight of his work.
Burd completed his study this spring and won a regional science fair before besting the competition in Ottawa at the national event.
At only 16, Burd knows he wants to enroll in science at a university, but he hasn't chosen a school yet. Although he has not received any commercial interest for his work, he is scheduled for a meeting at the national patent office on July 3, where he will get advice on whether his discovery can be patented.
While he ponders his options, Burd wants to refine his process to boost the rate of degradation. He says something is needed to deal with the millions of plastic bags littering oceans where they kill marine organisms that ingest them.
Teacher Mark Menhennet, who organized Waterloo Collegiate's science fair team, said Burd's effort goes beyond what most students can do.
``Daniel is an exceptional student,'' he said in an interview. ``It's an example of the level of excellence of students in the Waterloo region.''
Waterloo is home to Blackberry wireless e-mail device developer Research in Motion and the engineering-oriented University of Waterloo and its world-class Perimeter Institute for theoretical physics.