NBC Nightly News’ Tammy Leitner visited Georgia Tech Professor Carson Meredith’s lab to film a segment on how his research team has created a biodegradable material derived from crab shells and tree fibers that has the potential to replace the flexible plastic packaging used to keep food fresh.
The segment, which aired December 8-9 in the “Protecting Our Planet” series, featured Meredith and PhD student Chinmay Satam of Georgia Tech's School of Chemical & Biomolecular Engineering describing the technology. The new material is made by spraying multiple layers of chitin from crab shells and cellulose from trees to form a flexible film similar to plastic packaging film.
Cellulose, which comes from plants, is the planet’s most common natural biopolymer, followed next by chitin, which is found in shellfish, insects and fungi.
The team devised a method, described in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry and Engineering, to create a film by suspending cellulose and chitin nanofibers in water and spraying them onto a surface in alternating layers. Once fully dried, the material is flexible, strong, transparent and compostable.
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, according to Meredith.
“We produce about 10 million tons of crab shrimp or lobster waste a year,” Meredith explained to NBC “And that’s enough to replace a lot of the plastic used in packaging.”