The top prize at this year’s Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF) went to a 16-year-old from Taiwan who found a bacterium present in mealworm beetles that is capable of decomposing Expanded Polystyrene (EPS).
With the help of two microbiologists, the student, Tseng I-Ching, vivisected more than 500 beetles in her research. The unnamed bacteria is part of the mealworm digestive tract, although her project did not indicate how long it would take for the EPS to be broken down.
EPS includes the commonly-referenced Styrofoam, which is used frequently in packaging due to its light weight and ability to insulate. This form of plastic is an end product, meaning it can’t be recycled into different products and is instead shredded and converted into new EPS.
If Styrofoam is landfilled, it breaks apart into small pieces that become even more lightweight, allowing them to travel via air into the environment. In the U.S., more than 25 billion EPS cups are disposed of each year, in addition to what is used for packaging.
When asked about why she researched a way to break down Styrofoam, Ching said, “I love to observe and find wonder from nature. I love to solve questions.”
In other beetle news, separate research has concluded that the juice from beetles can be converted into a natural antifreeze. The juice can be mixed with oil or paint to provide frost resistance.
While artificially-produced antifreeze is recyclable, it also poses environmental issues because its sweet taste attracts children and animals. However, antifreeze also contains Ethylene glycol, which is toxic and poisonous when ingested.