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Could your next pair of polyester slacks contain shrimp waste?

08 February 2013

Scientists are investigating how shell waste from crustaceans could be turned into polymer precursors as a substitute to petroleum-derived products.

Image credit: Phú Thinh Co
Image credit: Phú Thinh Co

Shell waste produced by the seafood industry is a growing problem. Now, an EU funded research project called ChiBio aims to convert crustacean shell waste into basic building blocks, or monomers, that would serve as precursors for plastics.

In many Asian countries, shrimp waste is converted to chitosan, a commercially valuable compound with a myriad of applications ranging from use as a biopesticide to biomedical solutions in tissue engineering, non-viral gene delivery and enzyme immobilisation. The problem is that European crustacean shells harbour higher levels of calcium carbonate, thus making the Asian approach non-viable.

The ChiBio project’s main goal is to develop an integrated biorefinery for processing chitin rich biowaste to gain biobased monomers for the polymer industry. Lars Wiemann, who heads the project from the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology, in Straubing, Germany believes that the protocol used in the project could also be applied to other novel biogenic materials, such as insect carapaces or fungi. 

Until now, most shell waste processing approaches are focused on extracting chitosan. By contrast, the project is the first to take the process a step further. Its bio-refinery seeks to break down the chitin present in shells into its basic components, such as the sugar monomer glucosamine. These components can then be further processed, for example, into basic building blocks used in the synthesis of polymers such as nylon or polyester.

However, some question whether the approach may simply lead to additional challenges further along the road. The efficient extraction and purification process and availability of chitin wastes, in the future, may require the farming of chitin-rich crustaceans for making high quality chitin-derivative products. Others warn that the project success hinges on its commercial viability. 

The project team is well aware of such issues. The polymer industry is very price competitive and final monomers, whether they are derived from fossil fuels or renewable resources, must be cheap. Wiemann concedes that if the process proves too expensive in the end, it won´t be competitive and therefore not relevant for industrial uses.

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