ASU Engineering | Nielsen Lab

NSF IRES Project: Exploring Bio-based Plastics and Materials through Collaborative Research in Japan

Project Description:

As global concerns over the environmental impacts of plastic waste continue to grow, new solutions for providing sustainable materials are desperately needed, along with globally-minded scientists and engineers to deliver them.  With NSF support, this project seeks to develop such solutions while exploring new frontiers of biobased plastics and materials and training the next generation of innovative problem solvers.  This project will allow graduate and undergraduate students from at Arizona State University (ASU) and Navajo Technical University (NTU) to travel to and participate in hands-on research projects in the Department of Biobased Materials at Kyoto Institute of Technology (KIT) in Kyoto, Japan.  For 10 weeks each Summer, this project will provide training opportunities for up to 3 graduate and 6 undergraduate student participants.  Students will be embedded into the labs of KIT faculty, collaborating and working closely with them and their students. Student participants will also take part in a series of unique cultural activities, as well as tours of industrial sites and government research facilities.

Projects offered each Summer will span the continuum of relevant research challenges facing the production of biobased plastics and materials, including from upstream conversion, to polymer synthesis and materials development, to characterization of the resulting products, to their ultimate biodegradation.  Students will be trained and participate in one or more the following areas: i) applied microbiology and bioprocess engineering to enhance the availability of diverse, bio-derived monomers; ii) polymer chemistry and engineering for producing new bioplastics from bio-derived monomers; iii) engineering of novel fibers and materials from diverse sources (e.g., bamboo and silk) and for various applications; iv) synthesis and characterization of novel, functionalized biomaterials for biomedical applications; v) development of new analytical techniques for high-throughput screening of novel monomers and nanostructural characterization of biobased materials and plastics; and vi) investigation of sustainable methods for bioplastic degradation.

Approximate Timeline:


Oct. 1 – Dec. 31: Application period opens. 

Jan. 1 – Jan. 31: Committee Review. 

Feb. 1: Award Notification. 

Feb. 15: Deadline to Accept.

Mar. 1 – Apr. 30: Pre-departure Training and Preparation.

Mid-May: Travel to Kyoto, Japan

Mid-May – Early Aug.: Residence in Kyoto and Research at KIT

Early Aug.: Return from Kyoto, Japan

Late Aug.: Project Round-Up


To apply:

  1. Visit
  2. Click on any Major
  3. Look for ‘International Research Experiences for Students (IRES) Japan Scholarship’


Some memories from our trip in Summer ’23 


Participants and contact info:



Name First Last Position Research Areas Contact
Dave David Nielsen Prof., PI Metabolic engineering, synthetic biology 
Xuan Xuan Wang Assoc. Prof. Microbial fermentation, bacterial genetics
Arul Arul Varman Asst. Prof. Metabolic engineering, systems & synthetic biology
Matt Matthew Green Assoc. Prof. Polymer science, membrane separations



Name First Last Position Research Areas Contact
Thiagarajan Thiagarajan Soundappan Assoc. Prof. Electrochemical sensors, and Biosensors, energy storage, paper and plastic based 2D and 3D flexible electrodes



Name First Last Position Research Areas Contact
Yuji Yuji Aso Prof. Applied microbiology
Shin Shinichi Sakurai Prof. Structure and properties of multiphase polymeric materials
Tomo Tomonari Tanaka Assoc. Prof. Synthetic chemistry, Glycotechnology
Yoko Yoko Okahisa Assoc. Prof. Wood science, Polymer science
Huaizhong Huaizhong Xu Asst. Prof. Rheology