A research article on the wax moth caterpillar got three entrepreneurs thinking. The caterpillar eats plastic and leaves behind a substance that can be used for biofuel.
Marine pollution and contaminated plastic is one of the biggest environmental challenges worldwide at the moment. This was the starting point for four students, who were starting a student enterprise at the Department of International Business, NTNU Ålesund.
In their quest for relevant themes to pursue, they read an article describing how the wax moth caterpillar eats plastic. This was a great fit for their area of focus, and the biotech enterprise Plarva Solutions SB was born.
They pored over available literature and research articles to learn more about the caterpillar to find out whether it would even be possible to apply it on a larger scale.
“We used the entire first semester to find out,” said Margrethe Lundvold Norland. “And at the start of our second semester, we submitted a pilot project application to NTNU Discovery. In February, it went through.”
Live long and prosper
They used the funds to find out how they can establish the best possible environment for the caterpillars. They have to get the temperature, humidity and other factors just right.
“We do want them to thrive and live as long as possible. We learned a lot from this experiment, and we now know more about what works and what doesn’t, as we move into the next phase. These caterpillars have a special enzyme, which converts the plastic into hydrocarbons and alcohol. And that’s what we want. In our experiments we have crushed dead caterpillars and put them on plastic to see how the enzyme works—just a really simple experiment—and it turns out that the effect is considerable even that way.
“We have many questions and very few answers. We still have a lot of research to do. The caterpillar does turn into a moth eventually, and the moths don’t eat plastic. Plastic consumption is limited to the caterpillar stage. We are looking into teaming up with fish farmers; they have experience with gene modification, among other things. We want to keep the caterpillars at the larval stage for as long as possible.
Also, the entrepreneurs want to find out if the larvae can be used for human consumption once they have done their jobs destroying plastic. In Danish supermarkets, frozen caterpillars are sold at more than NOK 600 per kg. However, in order for the caterpillars to become food, they have to make sure that the alternative diet of these caterpillars doesn’t cause problems. A lot of plastic contains toxins, and while what’s left of the plastic is excreted out, some of the toxins may end up in the caterpillar.
“We have to look into that. We want to develop a sustainable value chain in a circular economy, so that nothing goes to waste.”
Buzz of activity and publicity
In its short existence so far, Plarva Solutions SB has achieved quite a lot. They won first place in the local final of Venture Cup 2018, the world’s biggest business plan competition. In the spring of 2018, they participated in the county-wide competition for student enterprises in Møre og Romsdal and won. This qualified them for the national competition for student enterprises in June.
“It was huge for us to get to the national competition. Our goal was to present our plans for as many people as possible, and, of course, to qualify for the European competition.”
Plarva Solutions SB came in third, something the three entrepreneurs are happy with. “We learned that what we do is worth pursuing, and we are really going for it. Nobody has been able to commercialize this before, and we are the first ones to actively pursue that.”
They are still students and will remain so for a few more years. They are completing their bachelor’s degrees part-time, so that they can work on Plarva Solutions while studying. Later this year they are turning their student enterprise into a limited liability company, by which time they will be in full swing with new experiments and caterpillar farms.
- Wax moths (galleriinae) live in beehives and wasp’s nests, where the caterpillars chew through nests or honeycombs (Source: Wikipedia).
- Researchers believe that the caterpillars’ digestion of beeswax involves breaking down the same chemical compounds as those found in plastic waste.
- The caterpillars leave behind a residue that is a combination of hydrocarbons and alcohol.
- Researchers differ on how effective it would be to exploit this process to break down plastic waste.
- The student enterprise Plarva Solutions is a biotech enterprise planning large-scale breeding of wax moths, using plastic waste to produce PET plastic and biofuel.
- Plarva also plans to sell the caterpillars for human consumption. (Source: NRK.no)
FROM DISCOVERY APPLICATION:
The objective is to create a prototype “enclosure” for wax moths (/caterpillars), feeding them PE plastic. Likely several different prototypes will have to be made to optimize conditions and architecture. Key challenges include feeding the plastic in without disturbing/hurting the wax moth caterpillars, removing excrements and dead wax moths/caterpillars, keeping temperature and humidity at optimal levels and noise levels down, and monitoring processes using as little light as possible.