As fruit, bananas are perfectly packaged – all the protection they need is provided by their flexible, resilient peels. As then-sixteen-year-old Turkish student Elif Bilgin discovered, the starches and cellulose contained in their outer layer can also be used to create materials that insulate wires and form medical protheses. Bilgin developed a chemical process that turns the peels into a non-decaying bioplastic that she hopes will help replace the need for petroleum and combat pollution. Bilgin’s endeavors won her the top prize and $50,000 at the Scientific American Science in Action competition, as well as the honor of becoming a finalist in the Google Science Fair 2013.
With figures such as Marie Curie and Thomas Edison to inspire her work, Elif Bilgin spent two years refining her techniques to transform banana peels into plastic. Noticing that mango peels had been used elsewhere in the plastics industry, she surmised that banana peels could also be a potential source for feedstock. In Thailand, she noted, 200 tons of peels are discarded daily and could be put to a better use than filling garbage heaps.
Bilgin hopes to one day attend medical school and dreams of creating a greenhouse made entirely of waste. “Winning this competition will bring me one large step closer to my dream of attending Med School, since the prizes will help me fund my education as well as allowing me to have an once-in-a-lifetime experience. But more importantly, winning will show me that I am in the right path to my future, and science is my calling,” she said of her selection as a finalist in the 2013 Fair.
Bilgin flew to the Google Mountain View Campus to take part in the third annual Google Science Fair and competed with other 15- and 16-year-olds. She joined 14 other teens and their innovations, including Ann Makosinski from Canada who invented a flashlight that operates using only the heat from the human hand. Makosinski went on to win the overall prize at the 2013 Fair.
Bilgin said at the time, “For me, this means that my project actually has a potential to be a solution to the increasing pollution problem caused by petroleum-based plastic. It also means that I have started the process of changing the world, which makes me feel like a winner already.” With the potential to make strides into cutting petroleum pollution as well as find an avenue to decrease the impact of a substantial source of waste, Bilgin is already leaving her mark on the field she loves.
Second image via Scientific American