Can researchers turn this shellfish pest into cash?

Scientists are working on a made-in-P.E.I. solution to tunicates. They make a mess of mussels and oysters, but there may be a way to wring profit from the invasive species.

Tunicates contain a potentially valuable substance

Cellulose from tunicates adds strength to plastics. PhD student Matt Dunlop inspects a sample at UPEI. (Brian Higgins/CBC)

Scientists at UPEI are looking at ways to turn troublesome pests of the shellfish industry into cold hard cash.

The pests are small animals called tunicates, that cling to mussels and oysters.

The substance that makes their slippery tunic-like skin so tough is the same substance that scientists are now trying to harvest: cellulose.

"It's cellulose like in wood and plants," said PhD student Matt Dunlop. 

"But tunicate-source nanocrystalline cellulose is much longer so it's like a longer piece of rebar on the micro-scale. And we can use it, when combined with other materials to make them stronger."

And that longer, stronger molecule could one day turn the troublesome tunicate into a source of cash for shellfish harvesters.  Nanocrystalline cellulose (NCC) is used in a variety of manufacturing processes.

"Plastic can be reinforced with NCC," said Dunlop. "It can be used as a finishing for paper, it can be used in paints, in oil and gas, many, many different applications."

Dunlop is working under chemist Rabin Bissessur, chair of the department of chemistry, and Bishnu Acharya, an assistant professor in the faculty of sustainable design engineering.

The idea came from harvesters

"I think it's a great project because we are basically adding to the economy and we are getting rid of something that is more of a nuisance right now," said Bissessur.

Bissessur's lab is home to x-ray diffraction equipment and other technology to analyze the chemicals that Dunlop isolates from dried, powdered tunicates. In the engineering lab across campus, Dunlop is testing the strength of plastics to which NCC has been added.

The supply of raw tunicates to UPEI's Bio-Resource Lab is plentiful. It comes from the tunicate-encrusted gear of local mussel and oyster growers. The idea for the research came directly from harvesters.

"Someone from the mussel industry contacted our school to see if there is any way we can treat the tunicates," said Acharya. "And suddenly our focus turned into tunicates ... what valuables are there?"

Researchers intend to scale up their experiment this year. They are now constructing equipment to extract tunicate cellulose in larger amounts, to make the process more cost-effective.

"People are already using it for many different applications, but there is a prediction that by 2021 there will be a big market for NCC," said Acharya.

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About the Author

Brian Higgins shoots video and reports news on Prince Edward Island.