Blood from a stone? Try sustainable polymers from shellfish

At the University of British Columbia, the catch of the day is natural, renewable, and could change the way a massive range of plastics are produced.

Chemistry Professor Mark MacLachlan is zeroing in on producing plastics from the shells of shrimp, crabs, and lobsters, and he's anything but salty about it. “It's great to know that you could have an impact,” stated MacLachlan. “We'd all like to know you that you can change the world.”

The key component is chitin, a remarkably strong, flexible, and completely biodegradable material found in the exoskeletons of arthropods. “Shells are a large waste product from the food industry, shrimp shells and crab shells especially,” he said. “But the chemistry needed to transform them into something useful is not too difficult.”

                                                                                                                            Credit: Wyss Institute

With possible uses including everything from egg cartons and coffee cups to biodegradable stitches, the waste reduction would be substantial. But even more interesting, is what happens when you heat the chitin to 1,652° F in a nitrogen only environment.

“Chitin-based films are very porous, so they have a large surface area," said the professor. “This gives them a high capacity for storing a charge." And while the resulting nitrogen-infused carbon is ideal for creating electrodes in batteries, the process remains extremely cost-prohibitive. “I think this would be too expensive to sell to Tesla," stated MacLachlan.

In any case, researchers worldwide are keeping a close eye on their progress, with hopes of seeing plastics produced from natural sources as quickly as possible.

In the meantime, MacLachlan and team might want to add a disclaimer to their lab assistant job postings about shellfish allergies.

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