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March 7, 2014

United States

Massachusetts—Making Biodegradable Plastics from Shrimp Shells

 

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 bio-plastic isolated from shrimp shells.  The objects exhibit many of the same properties as those created with other synthetic plastics, but without the environmental threat.

 

The majority of available chitin in the world comes from discarded shrimp shells, and is either thrown away or used in fertilizers, cosmetics, or dietary supplements.   Material engineers have not been able to fabricate complex three-dimensional (3D) shapes using chitin-based materials—until now.

 

The Wyss Institute team, led by postdoctoral Fellow Javier Fernandez, Ph.D., and founding director Don Ingber, M.D., Ph.D., developed a new way to process the material so that it can be used to fabricate large, 3D objects with complex shapes using traditional casting or injection molding manufacturing techniques.  What’s more, their chitosan bio-plastic breaks down within about two weeks when returned to the environment, and it releases rich nutrients that efficiently support plant growth.

 

“You can make virtually any 3D form with impressive precision from this type of chitosan,” said Fernandez, who molded a series of chess pieces to illustrate the point.  The material can also be modified for use in water and also easily dyed by changing the acidity of the chitosan solution.   And the dyes can be collected again and reused when the material is recycled.  This advance validates the potential of using bio-inspired plastics for applications that require large-scale manufacturing, Fernandez explained. The next challenge is for the team to continue to refine their chitosan fabrication methods so that they can take them out of the laboratory and move them into a commercial manufacturing facility with an industrial partner.

 

Information: Kristen Kusek, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard University, Center for Life Science, Boston Building, 5th Floor, 3 Blackfan Circle, Boston, Massachusetts 02115, USA (phone 1-617-432-8266, email kristen.kusek@wyss.harvard.edu, webpage http://wyss.harvard.edu).

 

Sources: 1. Phys.org.  Fully Compostable Bio-plastic Made From Shrimp Shells.  Kristen Kusek.  March 4, 2014.  2. Macromolecular Materials and Engineering.  Manufacturing of Large-Scale Functional Objects Using Biodegradable Chitosan Bio-plastic.  Javier G. Fernandez and Donald E. Ingber (email don.ingber@wyss.harvard.edu, Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Harvard University, Boston, Massachusetts, USA). First Published online February 26, 2014.

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