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ISS National Lab, Estée Lauder Choose 2 Potential Plastic Pollution Solutions to Launch into Space

The Beyond Plastics Challenge aims to address the plastics dilemma on Earth through the design and production of solutions aided by access to space. The two winning concepts will be able to conduct research in the International Space Station’s unique, weightless environment.

Today, the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory announced two winning concepts from its Sustainability Challenge: Beyond Plastics. The winning concepts will receive funding for their research proposals from the exclusive challenge partner, global prestige beauty brand Estée Lauder, and will have the opportunity to launch their research on the orbiting laboratory — to further the partners’ ambition to advance sustainability research that addresses the plastics dilemma.

The challenge, put forth by the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space, Inc. — manager of the ISS National Lab — in partnership with Estée Lauder, sought project concepts to advance sustainability research on the space station that address the worldwide plastic waste dilemma. The selected projects were announced today at the 11th annual ISS Research and Development Conference in Washington, DC.

Human space exploration missions quickly revealed that microgravity, or weightlessness, had profound and unique effects on physical and biological phenomena. Understanding these effects is critical for human exploration and pioneering space — but the study of these effects also advances knowledge on Earth. The ISS National Lab is a permanently crewed research facility, observatory and engineering test bed that can provide powerful insights into fundamental and applied scientific investigations; as such, the orbiting lab represents a one-of-a-kind platform capable of enabling scientific and technological discoveries that can mitigate the widespread effects of plastic pollution.

In 2019, the ISS National Lab held a sustainability workshop focused on how the orbiting laboratory could address plastic pollution in Earth’s environment. The Beyond Plastics Challenge builds on the workshop’s recommendations to address the plastics dilemma through the design and production of sustainable polymers aided by access to space.

“The ISS National Lab is deeply impressed by the winning concepts selected for our Sustainability Challenge: Beyond Plastics,” said Christine Kretz, VP of programs and partnerships for the ISS National Lab. “We are proud to make this special announcement with our partners at Estée Lauder — without their generous support, this challenge would not be possible. Opening access and opportunity through unique partnerships and solicitations like this enables greater potential for scientific gains that benefit humanity, and we look forward to working with the selected project teams as they prepare their research for spaceflight.”

The Beyond Plastics Challenge aims to utilize the orbiting lab’s unique, weightless environment to develop, test or mature products and processes that 1) reduce plastic waste introduction into the environment, 2) seek alternative feedstocks and pathways for polymer production beyond petrochemicals, or 3) reduce virgin plastic manufacturing. The two selected projects are:

Microgravity synthesis of aerogel copolymers

Dr. Stephen Meckler, Palo Alto Research Center, Inc. (PARC)

This project seeks to improve the performance of lightweight, porous aerogels to capture and remove carbon dioxide from the air. Producing the aerogel materials in the microgravity environment will allow the research team to study how the network of pores that make up the aerogel structure form in the absence of effects from gravity-driven convection and sedimentation. This information and the resulting pore structure may lead to better uniformity in the aerogels and higher carbon dioxide capture rates. Captured carbon dioxide could be used to replace oil as the polymer feedstock to produce plastics (an innovation recently proven by LanzaTech). PARC, which is part of the Xerox family, will work with ISS National Lab Implementation Partner Aerospace North America on this project.

No carbon left behind: Biological recycling of plastic waste

Dr. Katrina Knauer, National Renewable Energy Laboratory and the BOTTLE Consortium

This project aims to determine whether space radiation and microgravity influence the behavior of specific bacteria strains that break down plastics and produce polymer building blocks — which will be critical for use in mixed-plastic recycling. Results from this project may reveal new recycling mechanisms that could allow previously difficult-to-recycle plastics to be upcycled — or made into materials of even higher value than the original plastics. ISS National Lab Commercial Service Provider Rhodium Scientific will provide engineering support for this project.

The partnership between the ISS National Laboratory and Estée Lauder is a first for the beauty industry, reinforcing Estée Lauder’s commitment to sustainability as the company works towards its goal to have 75-100 percent of its packaging be recyclable, refillable, reusable, recycled or recoverable by 2025. Since the call for proposals in October 2021, the beauty giant has achieved 70 percent of that goal.

“As an evolution of our commitment to long-term sustainability and our partnership with the ISS National Lab, we’re honored to recognize and help facilitate the impactful research of Dr. Meckler and Dr. Knauer,” said Stéphane de La Faverie, Group President for The Estée Lauder Companies & Global Brand President at Estée Lauder. “Building on the visionary work of our namesake founder, Estée Lauder — who redefined technology and innovation in beauty — we are championing the next generation of leaders in science both to help drive the achievement of our packaging sustainability goals and in the hope of having broad impacts beyond our industry.”

In the future, the ISS National Lab says it intends to partner with other companies on similar Sustainability Challenges that fund opportunities to advance science that brings value to our planet.