MicroPET is the top finalist for ISS National Lab Sustainability Challenge


ISS National Lab

ISS National Lab


MicroPET team

Last Friday, the International Space Station (ISS) National Laboratory gathered a variety of thought leaders at a virtual event to discuss a critically important topic for our planet: sustainability. The event highlighted the ISS National Lab Sustainability Challenge: Beyond Plastics, a solicitation seeking projects leveraging the space station to tackle plastics waste and enable scientific or technological advancements that improve Earth’s environment. Global prestige beauty brand Estée Lauder is the exclusive partner for this Sustainability Challenge. As part of the brand’s commitment to supporting research that can help drive sustainable packaging innovation, and building on their long-term sustainability goals, Estée Lauder intends to provide funding to support one or more of the awarded projects.

At the virtual event on March 25, representatives from the ISS National Lab, Estée Lauder, the Ocean Plastics Leadership Network, and the Sustainable Packaging Coalition joined CNN’s Ashley Strickland to discuss the Sustainability Challenge and how the orbiting laboratory could be used to advance research into environmentally responsible biopolymers or plastics alternatives. Strickland also spoke with former NASA astronaut Terry Virts about what it is like to live and work on the ISS. Virts talked about the unique perspective of looking down at our planet from space and the importance of working together to take care of our environment.

The event also provided a unique opportunity for the public to learn about some of the research concepts submitted in response to the Sustainability Challenge. Christine Kretz, vice president for innovation and partnerships for the ISS National Lab, highlighted the top concepts submitted, and in total, six research teams were invited to submit a full proposal:

Principal Investigator (PI): Michael Burkart
Concept: Algae-based biodegradable polyurethanes in space

Clemson University
PI: James Sternberg
Concept: Ultraporous 100% biobased non-isocyanate polyurethanes

Massachusetts Institute of Technology
PI: Ariel Ekblaw
Concept: MicroPET: Enhancing microbial consortium of plastic bio-degradation

National Renewable Energy Laboratory
PI: Katrina Knauer
Concept: No carbon left behind: Biological recycling of plastic waste

Palo Alto Research Center
PI: Stephen Meckler
Concept: Microgravity synthesis of aerogel copolymers

University of North Carolina
PI: Hemali Rathnayake
Concept: In-space microbial production of nanocellulose hydrogels

As part of the initial step in the proposal process, investigators were asked to submit a recorded “pitch” video describing their proposed concept that could be made available to the public. Prior to the Sustainability Challenge event, the public was invited to view the pitch videos online and vote for the one they liked most. At the closing of the event, the ISS National Lab announced that a pitch from Hemali Rathnayake from the University of North Carolina won the Viewers’ Choice Award for her concept on “In-Space Microbial Production of Nanocellulose Hydrogels.”

The ISS National Lab would like to thank the generous sponsors of the Sustainability Challenge event, including Boeing(sponsor of the Viewers’ Choice Award), EcoencloseNoso Patches, and Westlake Chemical. We greatly appreciate this support in bringing visibility to the event and to this important research challenge.

Following evaluation of the full proposals, the ISS National Lab and Estée Lauder will announce the flight project(s) awarded through the Sustainability Challenge at the 2022 ISS Research and Development Conference. This year, ISSRDC will be an in-person event held in Washington, D.C., July 25-28. For more information on ISSRDC 2022, including how to register to attend or view sessions via livestream, please visit

For those who were unable to attend the Sustainability Challenge virtual event last week, a recording of the event has been made available online.

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