McGill researchers use lobster shells to make biodegradeable plastic

Researchers at McGill say they've discovered simple way to make biodegradable plastic from the hard shells of lobsters, shrimps, crabs and insects such as crickets and beetles.

Patented formula can turn shells of lobsters, crabs, shrimp and insects into plastic

McGill researchers have discovered a way to make durable plastic from leftover shells of lobsters, other shellfish and bugs.

Researchers at McGill say they've discovered a simple way to make biodegradable plastic from the hard shells of lobsters, shrimps, crabs and insects such as crickets and beetles.

Audrey Moores, an associate professor of applied chemistry, came up with the process along with graduate student Thomas Di Nardo.

"It remains biodegradeable, so if it goes in the environment it's not going to pollute," Moores told CBC Montreal. "But by processing it well we can make it into a durable plastic."

She said the plastic could be used for biomedical materials such as stitches or implants, where both durability and biodegradability are important.

But she added there may be many other potential applications, including plastic for 3D printing, cutlery, food packaging, perhaps even plastic bags.

'We just created a new material'

The material in the hard shells of bugs and shellfish is called chitin. Moores said chitin is already commonly used to create a polymer called chitosan.

Chitosan is currently used to make tiny polymers for biomedical use, but it's difficult to make on a large scale.

Moores said solving that problem was her team's breakthrough.

Lead researcher Audrey Moores said her team's main breakthrough was to find a way of making plastic from shells on a larger scale. (Moores Research Group)

"Polymers are like a necklace with a lot of beads. When people modify chitin to [make] chitosan, they force the necklace to break into smaller pieces. We managed to do the chemical transformation, but maintain the necklace at it's really long length," Moores said.

"This is opening an avenue of possibilities. We just created a new material essentially," she added.

That new material could be used to make plastics currently made from petroleum products.

"We have a much safer process, causing far less pollution and far less waste," she said.

Company offers free bug shells

Moores said so far her team has been working with shellfish and some beetles in the lab. 

But she heard recently from a company in Sherbrooke that makes protein powder from insects.

"Some of the insects have a shell that the company has to dispose of, but we could use it to make our polymers," Moores said.

Her team has already patented the process and would like to commercialize it. The next research step, she said, is to try to make the plastic a bit more malleable by mixing it with non-toxic additives.

About the Author

Steve Rukavina

Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal.