M’sian PhD students develop alternative plastic

Three institutions jointly develop prototype to reduce usage of single-use supermarket packaging

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A TEAM of Malaysian PhD students has won a global engineering challenge with a sustainable approach to packing dried food products.

The engineers from the University of Southampton Malaysia, University of Malaya and Universiti Teknologi PETRONAS (UTP) have developed a prototype for dissolvable food blocks that would significantly reduce the amount of single-use plastic supermarket packaging.

Team NanoMalaysia was named the Greenpeace scenario winner of the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) Global Challenge 2018/19 at this winter’s IET Innovation Awards in London.

The students’ solution, which is made of carrageenan and starch, provides an alternative to plastic packaging for dried, loose foods by protecting the food product until they are boiled in hot water.

A clear layer of starch holds the food in place, while the carrageenan, a natural ingredient that comes from red seaweed, prevents moisture from getting in.

Southampton’s Ivan Ling, Project Lead, says: “We are extremely honoured to be chosen as the winner of this prestigious award. One of the recent issues raised by the Malaysian Minister of Energy, Science, Technology, Environment and Climate Change is the dumping of plastic waste and this got us thinking how we could play a role to help solve this.

We plan to develop the PICAS block further and hope to have it commercialised in the near future.” The current PICAS block prototype is used to package beans. The team will now expand their scope to test other dried food products that need to be washed and cooked before consumption, including pasta and grains.

Ivan worked for nine months with Malaya’s Pauline Phoon Bao Lee and Tan Chin Joo, together with UTP’s Ong Chong Cheen, to develop the dissolvable block.

The IET Global Challenge tasked young entrepreneurs to develop innovative solutions that can help clean up the estimated 18 billion pounds of increasing plastic waste that enters our oceans every year.

The challenge provided two scenarios partnered with Greenpeace and the GreenSeas Trust. Team Baywatchers from Oxfordshire won this year’s GreenSeas Trust scenario with a concept for a crab-like robot that could collect cigarette butts from UK beaches.

The University of Southampton Malaysia was established in 2012 and offers world-class engineering programmes which include the Engineering Foundation Year and undergraduate MEng programmes in Mechanical Engineering, Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Electrical and Electronic Engineering.

The University offers a unique student experience, students spend their first two years in Malaysia and their final two years in the UK.