Chitin is a fibrous substance found in crab and shrimp shells, and the last time we looked at the stuff, Chinese scientists were using it to make an eco-friendly adhesive. Now researchers at Georgia Tech's School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering are using chitin, along with cellulose from tree fibers, to make a transparent bioplastic.
Specifically, they've been able to form these ingredients into a transparent and flexible film that they envision being used for food packaging. According to Science Daily,
"The main benchmark that we compare it to is PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, one of the most common petroleum-based materials in the transparent packaging you see in vending machines and soft drink bottles," said J. Carson Meredith, a professor in Georgia Tech's School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. "Our material showed up to a 67 percent reduction in oxygen permeability over some forms of PET, which means it could in theory keep foods fresher longer."
Image credit: Allison Carter, Georgia Tech
… Environmentalists have long looked for renewable ways to replace petroleum-based materials in consumer products. With the amount of cellulose already produced and a ready supply of chitin-rich byproducts left over from the shellfish food industry, there's likely more than enough material available to make the new films a viable flexible-packaging alternative, Meredith said.
The next challenge will be scaling up the production process; while technology to extract cellulose from wood already exists, cost-effective chitin-processing machines do not. It will likely be up to manufacturing engineers, and a deep-pocketed, environmentally conscious corporation to back them, to make crab/tree bioplastics a reality.