Thanks to a team of Harvard scientists, being called a “shrimp” will no longer amount to an insult. The University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering isolated chitin in the arthropod’s exoskeleton to make chitosan, a super tough polysaccharide that can be derived from the tons of crustacean shells discarded each year. Strong and easily made into 3D forms using injection molding or casting techniques, the final product dubbed “shrilk” can break down into the environment after two weeks and release nutrients that feed plants at the same time.
Until recently, most bioplastics were fabricated from plant cellulose that doesn’t fully degrade once altered. Led by Javier Fernandez and Don Ingber, the Harvard group manipulated chitosan to produce a tough and transparent material that retained as much of the natural molecular structure of chitin as possible. By adding silk derivatives and wood flour, they avoided the potential for cracking or shrinking during the injection molding process.
“There is an urgent need in many industries for sustainable materials that can be mass produced. 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,” Ingber stated in a Harvard press release.
Shrilk can also be modified for use in water and dyed by altering the compound’s acidity. The dyes can be collected after the bioplastic has outlived its use and repurposed when the Skrilk is recycled. Current plastic nightmares such as trash bags, diapers, and clam shell packaging could all be replaced by the invention and help reduce the millions of tons of plastic trash that streams into landfills, waterways, and marine ecosystems each year. Now, take-out containers meant for temporary use need not haunt the environment for thousands of years after their role has been fulfilled, and all because of the humble shrimp.
Via Harvard Gazette
Images via Wyss Institute and NOAA