Bioplastic engineered from shrimp shells

Researchers in the US have found a way to manufacture everyday objects using a fully degradable bioplastic isolated from shrimp shells.

The material was created using a natural polymer called chitosan, the second most abundant organic material on Earth.

Led by Postdoctoral Fellow Javier Fernandez, the team from Harvard University's Wyss Institute 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 moulding manufacturing techniques.

What's more, not only does the chitosan bioplastic break down when returned to the environment within about two weeks, it also releases nutrients that support plant growth.

Fernandez commented: "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."

After fully characterising how factors like temperature and concentration affect the mechanical properties of chitosan on a molecular level, the researchers honed in on a method that produced a pliable liquid crystal material that was 'just right' for use in large-scale manufacturing methods.

Significantly, they also found that adding wood flour, a waste product from wood processing, prevented the problem of shrinkage, whereby the chitosan polymer fails to maintain its original shape after the injection moulding process.

The next challenge is for the team to refine the 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.

Laura Hopperton

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