Teenage tech stories - Angela Zhan

Each month, Tech For Good speaks to one teenage entrepreneur about their incredible achievements in the world of tech, and how they’re contributing to making the world a better place.

Name: Angela Zhan

Age: 14

Born: Utah, USA

Achievements: Angela has developed a way to convert petroleum-based plastic wastes into environmentally friendly, biologically produced bioplastic, working with researchers from Weber State and Utah State universities. The project earned her a spot in the top 30 finalists of the US Broadcom MASTERS competition.

I’m currently a freshman at Logan High School. I like to play tennis and soccer. And I also like to do math and science.

In 2017, I read a New York Times article about how more than 8.3 million tonnes of plastic has been produced since the 1950s. And so soon, the world will be covered in plastic if we don’t do anything.

I had the chance to talk with the director of the London City Environmental Department, and he told me that most of the waste in landfills is plastic, and most of it will stay there for a few hundred years before starting to degrade. This poses a huge threat to human health. So this inspired me to come up with a way to degrade plastic to help our environment.

Plastic is commonly used in our daily lives. For example, toys, grocery bags, and even computers. My goal is to develop technology to allow us to keep using plastics without damaging the environment.

A lot of plastic is in landfills, right? So I decided to go to look where the most plastic is because microbes in the soil probably have to be able to degrade plastic in order to survive.

I used low-density polyethene [LDPE] to help find useful microbes. LDPE has long hydrocarbon chains, so it’s mostly made of carbon. So my hypothesis was that some microbes may have developed the ability to use and read LDPE.

I also collected water samples from the Great Salt Lake because it is very salty, so that means it has low carbon content, so microbes in there have to be able to efficiently use the carbon in order to survive.

I found two strains of bacteria that could grow on a diet of plastic bags. My next step was to isolate the plastic degrading microbes and put PHB [polyhydroxybutyrate] biosynthetic genes into the microbes so that they could degrade plastic and produce bioplastic which can help our environment.

There are actually three PHB genes. So I linked them together, and I put them into a shuttle vector, which can carry the three genes into the microbes.

For my last step, I tested the engineered strains, and I found that they were able to efficiently degrade plastic waste and produce environmentally friendly bioplastic.

If we want to actually start using these strains in the world, I probably have to improve their efficiency. And I want to try it on a larger scale because, right now, I have only tried it in flasks in the lab.

When I started, there were a lot of things I didn’t know. So the hardest thing was educating myself because they don’t really teach this in middle school. I learned a lot from academic papers.

I feel like there’s a lot more plastic now in the world and global environmental problems have actually got a lot worse.

I want to be an environmental engineer, so I can make the world a better place. I also want to install the PHB gene into plastic strings, so it can degrade them. I already found the bad plastics that I can use to test it.

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