Student creates formula to break down styrofoam

INDONESIA - Styrofoam, or polystyrene, is a material that is widely used by everyone from street vendors to electronic goods sellers, who use it to pack their goods. However, the material is environmentally unfriendly as it isnon-biodegradable.

However, a student at Bandung-based Padjadjaran University's (Unpad) Biology Department, Mutiara Pramudya Ningtyas, has sought a way to break down the material.

"I have been carrying out my research for two years," Mutiara said after being presented with the Unpad Motekar Award for technological innovation in Bandung recently.

The award is given by the university to innovators in Indonesia who contribute to development.

In her research, Mutiara said she had discovered a fungus that could break down styrofoam. To determine the degradation process on the styrofoam sample, she said no discolouration was found on the surface of the styrofoam, thus indicating the metabolic process was in accordance with the chain-bonding material, which was difficult to break down.

"Based on microscopic and stem analysis, the fungus also grew on the styrofoam. Based on my preliminary conclusion, it was as if the fungus had eaten the styrofoam; therefore, offering the potential to be developed so the material could be broken down in a shorter time," Mutiara said.

She added that the metabolic process showed that the fungus effectively "ate" the styrofoam.

"The styrofoam became an object of the fungus' metabolism," she said, adding that the indication was studied by using an X-ray diffraction and Fourier Transform Infrared to analyse the chemical chain.

The research stemmed from Mutiara's curiosity about a plastic food tub on which she found fungus growing along a dent on the tub. After consulting with her lecturer, Mutiara then took the fungus sample to develop in a normal medium.

"We used jelly as the medium," said Asri Peni Wulandari, a researcher in microbiological application at Unpad and Mutiara's lecturer.

Initilly, Mutiara obtained eight fungus samples. After analysing them one by one, she gathered a sample that she code-named TP2, which has the highest degradative nature.

It is indicated by a cut in a molecule on the styrofoam, which is known to have a dense molecule chain bond and is, therefore, hard to dissolve.

To develop her study, Mutiara collaborated with a university in Japan. "This was related to the research that was not only biological in nature, as other facilities were required," said Mutiara, who had earlier presented her research at the second International Conference on Life Science and Biological Engineering in Osaka, Japan, in November this year.

Asri expressed her hope that the study would lead to a solution from higher learning institutions to break down styrofoam. "We are also studying the possibility of producing styrofoam with materials that are more easily destroyed by microbes," she said.

Unpad Rector Ganjar Kurnia said the university had launched the awards so as to motivate researchers to create applied technology that was useful for the community.

The recent Unpad Motekar Award was divided into three categories - technological innovation, creative economic innovation and social engineering.

"Sometimes, if research is too scientific, it can be ineffective and hard to develop. We are seeking technology that is applicable," Ganjar said.

The winners in each of the award categories received a cash prize of Rp 10 million (S$1000), while the runners-up received Rp 8 million each and those in third place, Rp 6 million.