Forrest Gump knew all about the “shrimpin’ business” from his friend Bubba, but at that time I guess he didn’t know how to get rid of the shrimp shells in an environmentally-sound way. Scientists today want to convert these crustaceans’ shells into bioplastics like nylon or polystyrene to avoid the use of petroleum.
The industry usually burns crustacean shells, but they burn rather slowly due to the high content in calcium carbonate, and hence high energy resources are being used to that. The alternative would be to dump them, but the remaining flesh would attract pathogenic bacteria, so that’s also a problem.
The Asian way of getting rid of shells is by extracting their chitosan and turning it into biopesticides or by providing a lot of biomedical solutions like non-viral gene delivery and enzyme immobilization. However, the Asian method can’t be applied in Europe, because of the high calcium carbonate content in the shells.
ChiBio, a project based in Germany at Fraunhofer, uses EU funds to develop monomers, a building block for plastics, from the shells. They want to “develop an integrated biorefinery for processing chitin rich biowaste to gain biobased monomers for the polymer industry,” says Lars Wiemann, who heads the project from the Fraunhofer Institute for Interfacial Engineering and Biotechnology, in Straubing, Germany.
Monomers are currently produced from petroleum, and this would be a great alternative to that. The project’s bio-refinery seeks to break down the chitin present in shells into its basic components, such as the sugar monomer glucosamine. These components can then be further processed, for example, into basic building blocks used in the synthesis of polymers such as nylon or polyester.
So, the next time you eat your lovely crustacean meal at some fancy restaurant, think they’ll probably turn into a plastic bag in the near future, should these guys succeed. And then you’ll know something Forrest didn’t in his time.