Shrimp shell. (Photo: Phu Thinh)
Project will turn shell waste into nylon
Tuesday, February 12, 2013, 05:30 (GMT + 9)
Scientists are researching ways to turn shell waste from crustaceans into polymer precursors that can replace petroleum-derived solutions -- this would both provide an environmentally smart alternative and address the seafood industry’s problem of dealing with the shell waste.
Shell waste is normally disposed of in landfills, which comes at a high economic, environmental and human health cost. Many Asian countries have figured out how to turn small amounts of shrimp waste into chitosan, which is then used commercially with various compounds -- but European crustacean shells contain higher levels of calcium carbonate, which make the Asian approach unusable.
But a European Union- (EU) funded research project called ChiBio is now working to transform crustacean shell waste into monomers to build plastics, thereby leaving behind petroleum-based sources for monomers. It seeks to develop improved pretreatment-methods for European as well as Asian/African shell wastes, and eventually broadcast and disseminate the knowledge learned beyond to the public and other industrial communities.
The project seeks to "develop an integrated biorefinery for processing chitin rich biowaste to gain biobased monomers for the polymer industry," explained Lars Wiemann, head of the project at the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology, in Straubing, Germany, Science Daily reports.
While the standard shell waste processing approaches concentrate on extracting chitosan, this project unprecedentedly looks to break down the chitin in shells into its basic components, such as the sugar monomer glucosamine. These monomers can then be further broken down and used to build polymers such as nylon or polyester.
Still, not everyone thinks this is a perfect solution.
"The efficient extraction and purification process and availability of chitin wastes, in the future, may [require] to actually raise chitin-rich crustaceans for making [quality] chitin-derivative products," noted Montarop Yamabhai, associate professor and the chair of the School of biotechnology at the Suranaree University of Technology, in NakhonRatchasima, Thailand.
It also remains unknown whether the project could be commercially viable.
"The challenge is to be able to take the results of the project, make a commercially viable solution and address a widespread waste stream," said Michaela Archer, information programme leader at Seafish.
By Natalia Real