Scientists at DCU have been awarded more than €2m for research on turning waste from breweries and distilleries into more environmentally friendly plastic.
The Grain-4-Lab project works on transforming grains and liquids left over from the fermentation process.
The team has developed a process which produces a plastic they have formed into pipettes, petri dishes and other plastic laboratory consumables.
The plastic is biodegradable and the process uses less energy and it produces less carbon than the manufacture of plastic from fossil fuels.
"The standard fossil fuel plastic which we're benchmarking against might use 5 kilogrammes of CO2 to make one piece of plastic, versus 1 kilo of CO2 to make our plastic," said Dr Jennifer Gaughran, Assistant Professor at DCU’s School of Physical Science.
Researchers around world are working on processes to make bioplastics, as concerns over plastic pollution and reliance on fossil fuels grow.
However, many processes use crops or land that could be used to produce food, which is not ideal at a time of increasing global food insecurity and concern over biodiversity.
Dr Brian Freeland from DCU’s School of BioTechnology said what is novel about what the team is looking at is "we’re not utilising any food sources to make our bioplastics, so we won’t be competing with food requirements for the world".
Ireland has seen a massive growth in the number of distilleries in recent years, from three to 40, and they all produce waste.
The growing popularity of craft beers has also seen new micro-breweries opening around the country
Neil Conway of the Waterford Distillery, which makes a single malt peated Irish whiskey, says some of their leftovers is used by farmers but the waste stream is growing.
"It's very, very difficult for newer breweries and distilleries to get rid of their waste," Mr Conway said.
"So when these guys contacted me to get involved in the project, it was a win-win for us. It will be a win-win for the industry."
The team at DCU says one distillery produces enough waste to supply the raw materials for plastic consumables for all the science labs in Ireland for a year.
Once scaled up, their process could put a dent in the 5.5m tonnes of plastic waste from science labs around the world every year.
Dr Gaughran says there is a great demand from labs.
"Everybody is crying out for greener solutions," she said.
"They're just not there at the moment. We’re hoping to fill that gap."
Speaking about the award, Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Simon Harris said he "delighted to announce Grain-4-Lab as the winner of this year’s Plastic Challenge as part of the SFI Future Innovator Prize".
"I want to congratulate the team - Dr Jennifer Gaughran, Dr Brian Freeland, Ms Samantha Fahy, Dr Susan Kelleher and Dr Keith Rochfort from Dublin City University - for their leadership."
During the prize phase of the award, the Grain-4-Lab team will focus on the scale-up of their process for the manufacture of lab components, starting with petri dishes and extending this to other consumables, while developing a framework for the adoption of sustainable practices in laboratories.
The team will also continue to validate their approach, engaging with stakeholders across the value chain and developing commercialisation plans for their technology.
Dr. Ruth Freeman, Director of Science for Society, Science Foundation Ireland added her congratulations.
"I would like to commend Grain-4-Lab, Microplastics-free Plastics and the other teams that competed in the SFI Plastics Challenge, for their innovative, cutting-edge ideas, which make significant strides in addressing future societal challenges and sustainability goals," Dr Freeman said.
"Single-use plastic is a major contributor to global pollution, and it is essential that we try to reduce our consumption in all aspects of society. Similarly, waste material produced in Irish breweries and distilleries is an emerging and growing problem, with a considerable impact on the environment.
"Grain-4-lab has proposed an inventive solution to two sustainability challenges, which will allow STEM researchers in Ireland to lead by example by reducing single-use plastics in laboratories while tackling evolving sustainability challenges".
A runner-up prize of €250,000 has also been awarded to the Microplastics-free Plastics team, led by Prof John Boland from Trinity College, Dublin.