Shrimp-Based Bio-plastic Created at Harvard University

As our landfills reach their limits and our global oceans become cluttered with trash, people around the world are growing more focused on the products we purchase and their impact on the earth. Through an exciting new development from Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, landfills may become a problem of the past and “littering” could soon benefit the environment. This exciting new breakthrough is based on a delicious product already featured in homes throughout the world: shrimp!

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Post-Doctoral Fellow Javier Fernandez and Wyss Institute Founding Director Don Ingber, with their team, have developed an environmentally-friendly chitosan-based bio-plastic. Their process is a new treatment for the polymer chitosan, made from shrimp shells. The treatment results in a tough, pliable liquid crystal that is mixed with wood flour and cast or injection-molded to create 3-dimensional intricately shaped objects. The bio-plastic is a valuable replacement for traditional plastics through a number of unique benefits.

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Chitosan is created from chitin, a protein found in the shells of crustaceans, as well as insect exoskeletons and butterfly wings. Shrimp shells are a particularly plentiful source of chitin and currently considered “waste” from our delicious seafood meals. Wood flour is also an abundant byproduct - an excess material created by wood processing. Manufacturing of the chitosan-based bio-plastic would serve to “recycle” the plentiful waste and create a surprisingly low-cost commodity.

Unlike traditional plastics, chitin and wood flour are also both completely bio-degradable materials. Chitin, as a protein rich in nutrients, actually acts as a fertilizer when breaking down naturally. The chitosan product would bio-degrade in approximately two weeks, and used materials could be sold and recycled as ground fertilizer. This dual use would act as incentive for consumers that may be hesitant to try out a new product by providing them with a supplementary profit from the sale of their “waste”. Consumers could also utilize the chitosan bio-plastic as fertilizer for their own plants, creating an efficient home-based recycling program.

The manufacturing process for chitosan bio-plastic comes without the harmful environmental impacts associated with the creation of traditional plastic materials. The bio-plastic can also be created in a variety of colors through different acidity levels utilized during creation. Fernandez, Ingber, and their team are currently refining their fabrication methods, and hope to have the product available for industrial use soon. Chitosan-based bio-plastic is just one of many exciting new innovations inspired by delicious, nutritious shrimp.

Sources:

“Bioplastic Engineered from Shrimp Shells.” Engineering Materials. Findlay Media Ltd. 2014. Web. March 2014.