Plastic is a wonderful material that has changed the way we live in uncountable ways. It’s versatile, cheap, extremely durable, and long-lasting. That durability does tend to become a problem when that plastic is thrown away, as a lot of it ends up in the oceans. A group of researchers is trying to solve this problem by building an alternative to plastic bottles and containers using crab shells and tree fibers.
The researchers, from the Georgia Institute of Technology, set out to identify natural materials that could mimic the plastics used in plastic bottles and food containers. These are made with a plastic called polyethylene terephthalate, or PET, which consists of a bunch of very small fibers woven together. Whatever replaces PET has to be a similar type of fiber that’s just as durable.
The researchers found their answer in a mix of cellulose fibers and chitin, a material commonly found in many animal shells. These are some of the strongest natural fibers in nature, and by combining them together in a new way, the researchers believe they’ve developed a PET substitute.
In addition to being strong and durable, PET has a number of qualities that make it ideal for use as a water bottle or food container. The plastic is clear, meaning potential consumers can see the contents; it blocks oxygen from passing through, which means food stays fresh longer; plus it’s cheap.
By combining these two natural fibers, cellulose and chitin, and taking advantage of their electrical properties, the scientists created a film that achieves at least two of these conditions: Their product is clear and does an even better job of blocking oxygen than PET.
“Our material showed up to a 67 percent reduction in oxygen permeability over some forms of PET, which means it could, in theory, keep foods fresher longer,” said researcher J. Carson Meredith.
Of course, the biggest hurdle the team has to overcome is making their product as cheap as the competition, which is still a distant prospect. Perhaps the biggest hurdle is the chitin, which is tough to produce is large quantities. But perhaps in the future, more efficient, biodegradable plastic might protect your foods and drinks in a more sustainable way.
Source: Georgia Tech
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