Insect technology: taking a 'bite' out of plastic pollution

Could plastic eating insects help save our environment?

Polystyrene is a non-biodegradable persistent plastic that is accumulating at alarming rates on land and in rivers, lakes and oceans.

To address this, The University of Western Australia (UWA) will unite with Woodside Energy Ltd to investigate the use of insect technology as a means of converting polystyrene waste into high value protein products.

Preliminary studies suggest that larvae of yellow mealworms are capable of degrading polystyrene and polyethylene via enzymatic processes in the larval gut.

We seek a student to investigate the process by which this occurs, and explore other insects that could be intensively farmed for plastic removal.

As part of this project the successful applicant will use T.molitor as a test species to:

  • Investigate expanded polystyrene (EPS) to biomass conversion rates

  • Investigate T. molitor ability to degrade other plastics (i.e. polyethylene)
  • Explore larval rearing optimisation (e.g. temperature, larval density and dietary factors) to improve conversion rates
  • Selectively breed T. molitor (and/or gut microbiome) to increase conversion rates
  • Perform chemical analyses of larvae and frass to determine nutritional profile and identify presence of undesirable metabolites of EPS
  • Prototype a “biodegradation unit” design for deployment to site
  • Perform an evaluation of market potential for larval and frass products

Research team leader: Professor Rob Atkin

Rob Atkin is a physical chemist with research interests that span fundamental to applied areas including ionic liquids and deep eutectic solvents, break down of plastics using insects, surfactant and polymer adsorption, surface coatings, lubricants, electrolytes, production of biofuels from coal and biomass, microencapsulation, preparation of 2D materials, and protein droplet formation in cells. Atkin makes extensive use of cutting edge facilities in the UWA Centre for Microscopy, Characterisation and Analysis, such as atomic force microscopy and external radiation scattering facilities such as ANSTO and the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source. Rob has collaborations with academics and industry partners in Australia and internationally.

This project is in collaboration with:


Woodside logo


How to apply

Interested in becoming part of this project? Complete the following steps to submit your expression of interest:

Step 1 - Check criteria

General UWA PhD entrance requirements can be found on the Future Students website.

Requirement specific to this project:

  • The project would suit a chemistry graduate with a willingness to learn the biology relevant to this project.

Step 2 - Submit enquiry to research team leader

Step 3 - Lodge application

After you have discussed your project with the research team leader, you should be in a position to proceed to the next step of the UWA application process: Lodge an applicationDifferent application procedures apply to domestic and international students.


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