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Student team invents Suckerspheres: sustainable alternative for microplastic

A Leiden Groningen student team has reached the European finals of the BISC-E competition. In this annual competition students have to come up with a sustainable solution to a major social problem. The team invented Suckerspheres: a natural alternative to the plastic microbeads that are still widely used in sunscreen and other cosmetic products.

Tiny beads of plastic

The team of students from Leiden en Groningen found a new application for the multifaceted protein suckerin, which they had promoted in a previous student competition as a remedy for burns (see link). ‘During our research it turned out that suckerin can be used in many ways’, says team member Laurens ter Haar. ‘That’s why we now want to use it as a sustainable and biological alternative to plastic microbeads.’

Plastic microbeads are tiny plastic balls that are used in many cosmetics, such as sunscreen and shampoo. Ter Haar: ‘Producers add them, for example, to improve the spreadability of their product, but sometimes also simply as cheap bottle filling.’ The plastic particles end up on a large scale in the environment and ultimately in plants, animals and people.

Sustainable production

Suckerspheres, or spheres made of suckerine, need to replace the plastic microbeads. The team wants to produce the protein sustainably using yeast. 'Unfortunately, due to the Corona situation, we cannot test in the lab,' says supervisor Marjolein Crooijmans. 'But we have a few different theories.' 'The great thing is that we can use waste products as a feeding ground for the yeast,' adds team member Maarten Lubbers. 'Think of the sticks of corn and other non-edible parts of plants.' Moreover, Suckerspheres are also biodegradable.

The students already have ideas to convert the produced suckerin into microbeads. 'Suckerin is a thermoplastic protein', explains ter Haar. 'Just like plastic, it melts at high temperatures and then you can deform it into whatever you want. It also seems that by adding a saline solution, we can force the protein to transform itself into small spheres. But that too needs to be tested first.'

Social distance proof teamphoto. With from left to right: Laurens ter Haar, Floor Stel, Georgy Bubnenkov, Marjolein Crooijmans, Daniël Tan, Maarten Lubbers (in front), Jonah Anderson and Daan van Tol

New world

The team also has to create a business model for the competition. 'Georgy Bubnenkov from the University of Groningen will help us with this,' says Lubbers. 'As a biologist, it's very interesting to take a look at the "business side" of this kind of projects. In the beginning it was difficult, we really were introduced to a new world.  But that's what makes this competition interesting; you learn things that you don't get to experience during your own studies.'

The European final of BISC-E is in November. It would have been in Paris, but will now take place online. Five countries participate. 'We first have to present our idea to a professional jury,' says Crooijmans. 'They will choose a top three that will then have to present their idea again to the BISC jury. They ultimately choose the winner.' Before that time, there is still work to be done: 'During the national finals we received a lot of feedback about our business plan; it needs to be a lot more realistic,' says Lubbers. 'That's why, near upon, we're going to discuss how we can improve this with one of the Dutch judges. In any case, we believe that our Suckerspheres have the potential to reform the cosmetics industry.'

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