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Faculty Fulbright winner will travel to Finland to research plastic alternatives

by Matt Jardin  |   

Philippe Amstislavski
J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship recipient and UAA Associate Professor of Public Health Philippe Amstislavski will spend spring 2021 working with the biomaterials group at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland to further development on bio-based alternatives to plastic, including his own mycelium-based solution to traditional plastic packaging and insulation materials. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

UAA Associate Professor of Public Health Philippe Amstislavski was recently awarded a J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship. He will spend spring 2021 in Tampere, Finland, working with the biomaterials group at VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland. Headed by colleague Lisa Wikstrom, the biomaterials group works to develop bio-based alternatives to plastic.

Specifically, Amstislavski will be furthering his research of an all-natural and completely degradable biomaterial substitute for plastic insulation and packaging. Co-developed with UAA Professor of Civil Engineering Joey Yang, the duo identified mycelium as the key ingredient of their substitute. Mycelium refers to a mushroom’s underground network of roots, and the mycelium Amstivlaski and Yang use comes from a white-rot fungus that’s very common in Alaska. 

Amstislavski began his work after arriving in Alaska in 2013. He became concerned about the health and environmental impacts of the omnipresent plastic waste he found even in the most remote parts of the Arctic and decided to address the problem of microplastics presented by Styrofoam and other synthetic packaging and insulation materials though developing a bio-based alternative. 

Philippe Amstislavski
UAA Associate Professor of Public Health Philippe Amstislavski collects samples of some of the fungi found in the forests around UAA which are similar to those his team has used to develop a lightweight packaging alternative to Styrofoam. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

In 2016, Amstislavski teamed up with Yang and secured a $25,000 UAA INNOVATE Award to found Rhizoform LLC, which was named one of the best university start-ups in 2016 and more recently was highlighted in a report on curbing global marine plastic pollution published by the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School.

“Here in the U.S. we use plastic foams for our fishing and our housing insulation and those don’t biodegrade, they become microplastics and end up in the ocean or air and that creates a host of problems,” said Amstislavski. “We’re looking at the tip of the iceberg to understand what the implications are, but it’s not great news that we are putting more and more plastic into our environment, because it accumulates up the food chain, in the animals we eat and ends up in us. Plastics production also has a massive carbon footprint and creates toxic waste streams.”

Fulbright applicants choose where in the world they want to study as part of the organization’s emphasis on the cross-pollination of ideas across the international scientific community. Amstislavski chose Finland due to its established work in the field, technological infrastructure and successful commercialization of bio-based packaging. His decision to go to Finland may have also been influenced by his love of saunas. 

“This collaboration with the Finnish colleagues offers a tremendous opportunity because they have invested as a society in developing a strong technological base for this type of work in a growing market for biomaterials,” said Amstislavski. “This is where the intellectual exchanges happen. This is where the collaborative research happens. New relationships between the Arctic regions spur innovative, new solutions to the most pressing problems we face.”

According to Amstislavski, the work to develop an alternative to traditional petroleum-based products is more relevant than ever, given the COVID-19 pandemic’s impact on the oil industry here in Alaska and around the world.

“We in Alaska are at a crossroads,” said Amstislavski. “My Ph.D. mentor Dr. Bill Burch always said that every problem is a hidden opportunity if we reframe it as such. This current situation gives us an amazing opportunity to move toward a bio-based economy and be a leader in developing technologies that help in that regard and train a workforce of skilled biotechnologists and bioengineers that are able to integrate into this new emerging economy around the world.”

Philippe Amstislavski
UAA Associate Professor of Public Health Philippe Amstislavski with examples of the lightweight packaging materials his team has developed using fungi, which they hope will replace Styrofoam. (Photo by James Evans / University of Alaska Anchorage)

Written by Matt Jardin, UAA Office of University Advancement

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