Valpo Torch

Valparaiso University Professor of Chemistry Julie Peller has been awarded with a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for her research in microplastics. The $299,083 grant will last two years.

“By and large, plastics are these non-biodegradable materials that are accumulating, lots of plastic waste we know is accumulating in the environment, and we see lots of pictures and hear stories about how much is accumulating on a daily basis, how is this affecting wildlife, and all the natural processes,” Peller said. “The reality is there are certain natural processes that affect these materials over time. It’s a slow change and then you also have to realize that plastic materials must have other additives whether we’re talking about just the colors or other additives that change the properties and maybe make them more flexible, things like that.”

The scientific community still has much to understand about these microplastic pollutants and their chemistry.

“So the question is what are these changes and what does that mean both to environmental health and human health because we all have microplastics in our systems now. They’ve become that ubiquitous in the world,” Peller said.

Gamma rays can be used to transform water molecules into reactive species allowing them to react with microplastics and simulate what happens in nature. 

“These reactive species, they’re out there in nature, but to a much much lower extent and what we can do is use radiation chemistry to simulate that at a really fixed level so we create these and we transform these microplastics over a matter of days instead of decades and we’re able to study that transformation and better understand what’s happening over the long term,” Peller said. 

The collaboration with Idaho National Lab will allow Peller to subject the microplastics to the gamma rays given off by the instruments. 

Peller analyzes microplastics found in freshwater both in Valpo and the nearby Great Lakes, but one of her collaborators is analyzing particles in the ocean at Long Beach, Calif. 

“What we’re planning to do is just have very controlled experiments in the lab in the first year and then extend that to the world of microplastics that are out there,” Peller said.

The grant will allow for more student researcher funding. 

“When you have funding you can always do a lot more and it provides for student stipends in the summer time and travel monies. Hopefully we can get past this pandemic and get students in scenarios where they can see things outside just the VU labs,” Peller said. 

Peller expresses some frustration with the time it took to get the grant from the NSF for microplastic research. 

“I was honestly a little bit frustrated over the last few years because there’s a lot of research going on with microplastics and the funding just wasn’t there. There was a little frustration because this is a serious problem. We have so many researchers working on this and where is the funding?” Peller said. 

Last winter, the NSF finally asked for proposals for microplastic research, which Peller then applied for with her collaborators. 

“We’ve really been focusing on the microplastics that are the micro fibers, the synthetic microfibers, so from all the synthetic fibers and clothing which happens to be what we’re finding to be the most prevalent microplastic especially in the water environments,” Peller said. 

Peller expressed the importance of this microplastic research.

“I think these are actually scientific topics that have a lot of everyday relevance to people because we’re all actually contributing to this load of synthetic microfibers in this environment. I think it’s important to understand that we all are contributing these pollutants, and inadvertently, I mean we don’t mean to but that’s just kind of been the progression of our lives in the use of these polymers and making so many things,” Peller said. 

She added that the amount of microplastic pollution will only continue to rise in the upcoming decades. 

“If you can reduce your one use plastics there’s so many things we buy we use we throw away and one of the things I always try and impress upon people is if you think of the origin of these plastic materials it’s from fossil fuels, gas and liquid petroleum, and these take millions of years to form, so we take that and mine that out of the earth, we manufacture plastics so many of which we use once and throw them away,” Peller said.

She has also been trying to have interdisciplinary conversations about microplastics with the faculty at Valpo. 

“The food services I’ve heard are doing containers that you have to return as opposed to plastic. Those are the changes we need to see. It’s bad now it’s going to get far worse if we don’t make those types of changes,” Peller said. 

Peller gave a shout out to her department for creating chemistry lab experiments involving microplastics and her research student.

“Eddie Kostelnik has been working with me, he’s a senior now, he started working with me when he was a freshman and he has been very committed and has done great with me. He has been an important part of the progress of this research over the past three years,” Peller said. 

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