NSF Convergence Accelerator Track E: Nereid Biomaterials: Biodegradable plastics for tomorrow’s ocean

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National Science Foundation
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Biotechnology and Engineering

Expendable, networked, free-drifting instruments are revolutionizing ocean observation and maritime analytics, but these growing fleets of sensors present an environmental challenge and a necessary shift in how we think about the materials used in their construction. At present, most “biodegradable” plastics have limited biodegradation in cold, dark oceanic conditions and were designed and tested only in industrial composting facilities. More effort is needed to develop both sustainable materials and testing standards that accurately reflect in situ conditions in the ocean. Materials that facilitate rapid degradation of marine instrumentation under realistic environmental conditions would transform our ability to deploy low-cost ocean instruments at scale.

Solving this problem requires the convergence of intellectually distinct fields and approaches, as well as the deep involvement of stakeholders that manage marine debris and end-users. Together, our team will innovate, test, and integrate biomaterials designed to rapidly degrade at end-of-life in oceanic conditions into ocean instrumentation. Our deliverables are: (1) Degradation rates of formulated biomaterials in ocean-simulated conditions; (2) Prototype living materials that degrade on three timescales: weeks, months, and years; (3) Degradation rates of formulations and rigid prototypes in real-ocean conditions; (4) An assessment of biomaterial properties and toxicity; (5) Field-ready prototypes of ocean instruments with tunable degradability, fabricated in collaboration with our industry partners. Our overarching objective is to integrate sustainable materials into oceanographic instrument applications.