Team creates bioplastic made from shrimp shells

May 6, 2014, Harvard University

Turning shrimp shells into plastic: Harvard's Wyss Institute comes up with fully degradable bioplastic. Credit: Wyss Institute
(Phys.org) —For many people, "plastic" is a one-word analog for environmental disaster. It is made from precious petroleum, after all, and once discarded in landfills and oceans, it takes centuries to degrade.

Then came apparent salvation: "bioplastics," durable substances made from renewable cellulose, a plant-based polysaccharide. But problems remained. For one, the current bioplastics do not fully degrade in the environment. For another, their use is now limited to packaging material or simple containers for food and drink.

Now researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have introduced a new bioplastic isolated from . It's made from chitosan, a form of chitin—the second-most on Earth.

Chitin, a tough polysaccharide, is the main ingredient in the hardy shells of crustaceans, the armorlike cuticles of insects, and even the flexible wings of butterflies.

The Wyss Institute makes its shrilk from chitin from shrimp shells, most which would otherwise be discarded or used in fertilizer or makeup, and a fibroin protein from silk. Researchers discussed it in a March online study in the journal Macromolecular Materials & Engineering.

The challenge is clear: We will drown in plastic if we don’t find a sustainable alternative. Harvard’s Wyss Institute has been working on a bioplastic that is expected to provide part of the solution. In one experiment, Wyss Institute researchers grew a California black-eyed pea plant in soil enriched with its chitosan bioplastic. Within three weeks, the material encouraged plant growth. Credit: The Wyss Institute

Shrilk is cheaply and easily fabricated by a novel method that preserves chitosan's strong mechanical properties. The researchers said that for the first time, this tough, transparent, and renewable material can be used to make large, 3-D objects with complex shapes using traditional casting or injection-molding techniques. That means objects made from shrilk can be mass-manufactured and will be as robust as items made with the everyday plastics used in toys and cell phones.

"There is an urgent need in many industries for sustainable materials that can be mass produced," Wyss Director Donald E. Ingber said in March. "Our scalable manufacturing method shows that chitosan, which is readily available and inexpensive, can serve as a viable bioplastic that could potentially be used instead of conventional plastics for numerous industrial applications."

This environmentally safe alternative to plastic could also be used to make trash bags, packaging, and diapers.

Once discarded, shrilk breaks down in just a few weeks—and even releases rich nutrients that support plant growth. In one experiment, Wyss Institute researchers grew a California black-eyed pea plant in soil enriched with its chitosan bioplastic. Within three weeks, the material encouraged plant growth.

In environmental terms, finding viable alternatives for conventional plastics—prized for their lightness, durability, and low price—is an urgent matter. In the United States alone, according researchers at Columbia University, about 34 million tons of plastic waste is generated every year; less than 7 percent is recovered for recycling.

Meanwhile, according to the same researchers, plastics buried in landfills will take 1,000 years to degrade. Plastics discarded into the world's seas—an estimated 100 million tons so far, circulating in vast oceanic gyres—are a threat to marine life.

Explore further: Fully compostable bioplastic made from shrimp shells

Related Stories

Fully compostable bioplastic made from shrimp shells

March 4, 2014

(Phys.org) —Researchers at Harvard's Wyss Institute have developed a method to carry out large-scale manufacturing of everyday objects—from cell phones to food containers and toys—using a fully degradable bioplastic ...

As strong as an insect's shell

February 3, 2012

Harvard researchers at the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering have come up with a tough, low-cost, biodegradable material inspired by insects’ hard outer shells. The material’s inventors say it ...

Video: Using microbes to generate bioplastics

March 12, 2014

European scientists are experimenting with bacteria and algae and turn them into bioplastic factories. Their vision: these microorganisms should produce a large portion of our plastic materials without any petroleum.

Recommended for you

Scientists discover new 'architecture' in corn

January 21, 2019

New research on the U.S.'s most economically important agricultural plant—corn—has revealed a different internal structure of the plant than previously thought, which can help optimize how corn is converted into ethanol.

Targeting 'hidden pocket' for treatment of stroke and seizure

January 19, 2019

The ideal drug is one that only affects the exact cells and neurons it is designed to treat, without unwanted side effects. This concept is especially important when treating the delicate and complex human brain. Now, scientists ...

Artificially produced cells communicate with each other

January 18, 2019

Friedrich Simmel and Aurore Dupin, researchers at the Technical University of Munich (TUM), have for the first time created artificial cell assemblies that can communicate with each other. The cells, separated by fatty membranes, ...

Using bacteria to create a water filter that kills bacteria

January 18, 2019

More than one in 10 people in the world lack basic drinking water access, and by 2025, half of the world's population will be living in water-stressed areas, which is why access to clean water is one of the National Academy ...

1 comment

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

Expiorer
1 / 5 (1) May 06, 2014
Is it edible?

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.