Lobster Plastic Clawing Its Way Into Becoming a New Bio-Med Material

by Rudy Sanchez on 12/13/2018 | 2 Minute Read

Crustaceans are some of the sea’s most sought-after delicacies, and they have the bonus of coming in their own durable packaging. Unfortunately, we’ve found little use for their exoskeletons, which usually end up in a landfill—or, if your chef game is at an all-time high, you’re at least using those shells for a lobster stock before grinding them up and throwing them in your compost bin.

Researchers at McGill University, however, have found a new use for lobster shells—making plastic.

The shells of insects and crustaceans contain a material known as chitin,  a fibrous component of arthropods’ exoskeletons that’s responsible for their toughness. The chemical structure, first discovered by Albert Hoffman (of LSD fame), is similar to cellulose, a plant-derived compound that is used to make paper, cellophane film and textiles.

Chitin is processed into chitosan, which can then be used to create bioplastics. While using chitosan-derived material as an alternative to plastic is not new, associate professor of applied chemistry Audrey Moores and graduate student Thomas DiNardo have found a way to make a more durable form of chitosan through a simple process that requires no special skills or equipment. Previous methods of making chitosan-plastic broke down more of the polymer chains, resulting in a material that breaks down rapidly and is suitable in applications like medical sutures, but not much else.

The future of chitosan-plastic is promising, especially considering that it’s non-toxic and biodegradable. Moreover, lobsters and other shellfish aren’t the only sources of chitin, as you can also use some insects.

Chitosan-plastic isn’t quite ready to become a replacement for plastic yet. For starters, petrol-plastic has a larger economy of scale as well as centralized refineries, whereas the shellfish industry is spread out among many producers. That said, Moores believes that lobster plastic can be used in biomedicine since it's non-toxic and safe for use in medical applications.

Only time will if lobster-plastic will be successful, though we could see it as a replacement for other plastic uses relatively soon, including—we hope—lobster bibs.

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