Making new ‘plastic’ from plants and prawn shells

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Could prawn shells be the new plastic?

Plastic is now everywhere and virtual indispensable in our daily lives, but it is polluting the earth. However, its widespread use may one day be replaced by eco-friendly options.

One such material is Flam (fungal-like adhesive material), a fully biodegradable and ecologically sustainable material made from cellulose and chitin – basically, plant matter and prawn shells.

Researchers at the Singapore University of Technology and Design (SUTD) have grown this 3D printable material, which is cheap, tough and lightweight.

Assistant Professor Javier Fernandez, one of the lead researchers of the project, said the successful development of Flam showed that more sustainable ways of production are possible. He added that the use of plastics may one day be reduced drastically, with the development of a potentially cheaper and more sustainable new material.

Flam is made up of an amalgamation of cellulose and chitin, which are the two most common natural polymers and industrial by-products on earth. Cellulose can be extracted from sawdust and other plant-based waste materials, chitin from seafood shells. These materials might otherwise go to waste.

“These materials are part of the ecosystem, so when Flam is disposed of in nature, it will decompose without further intervention,” Prof Fernandez said.

Flam also costs less than $2 a kilogram, similar to commodity plastics.

To prove that Flam works in creating solid structures while functioning as an adhesive, researchers printed the largest biodegradable structure in the world to date – the 5m-tall Hydra, made entirely from Flam.

The structure, located at the main lobby of SUTD’s library, weighs 100kg and took about 50 hours to 3D print. “Flam is very versatile, and the Hydra demonstrates that the material can be printed, eventually, in any shape we want,” said Prof Fernandez.

“This also means that it can be used as an environmentally friendly option for large-scale fabrication, as opposed to non-biodegradable materials used now.

“You can just fill a Flam-made cylinder with concrete, and there you have it – a pillar,” he added.

The research team is led by Prof Fernandez and Assistant Professor Stylianos Dritsas, both from SUTD.

The team’s eventual aim is to provide a missing piece in the development of Singapore’s economy.

They may well succeed in doing so, by developing a way to make a material for commercial use that can be degraded without disrupting the ecological system or having to be recovered and processed.

The research team has filed a patent, and will be exploring opportunities to collaborate with companies to make the Flam material more industrially viable.

Prof Fernandez said the ubiquity of the cellulose and chitin needed to make Flam in Singapore may one day make it viable for Flam to be mass produced. This includes making sure that the materials required for Flam are procurable here, allowing it to be easily made locally.