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Dec. 19, 2011

Possible Plastic Alternative Inspired by Insects

by Zach Lynn

Click to enlarge images

By Zach Lynn, Carleton College

A model of an insect wing made entirely out of schrilk.

Plastic's environmentally hazardous reign of terror over consumer products might be about to end. The Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has just developed a cheap, sturdy and biodegradable material that could realistically act as an alternative to plastic. This material, known by its creators as "Shrilk", was inspired by the sturdy yet flexible cuticles of arthropods (including insects, arachnids, and crustaceans).

How did the Wyss Institute choose arthropod exoskeletons as their inspiration? Insect cuticle has some remarkable properties that are were outlined in the press release:

“Natural insect cuticle, such as that found in the rigid exoskeleton of a housefly or grasshopper, is uniquely suited to the challenge of providing protection without adding weight or bulk. As such, it can deflect external chemical and physical strains without damaging the insect’s internal components, while providing structure for the insect’s muscles and wings. It is so light that it doesn’t inhibit flight and so thin that it allows flexibility. Also remarkable is its ability to vary its properties, from rigid along the insect’s body segments and wings to elastic along its limb joints.”

Schrilk has some amazing physical properties. It is as strong and tough as aluminum, but it weighs only half as much. Schrilk can easily be molded into virtually any shape. By varying the amount of water used in its construction, the stiffness of schrilk can be varied. Schrilks, ranging from elastic to rigid, would have even more applications.

Schrilk has great potential in medicine as well. It is biocompatible meaning that it does not elicit an immune system response from within the human body. Schrilk could be used to suture wounds or as scaffolding for tissue regeneration.

Schrilk is composed of two ingredients, fibroin proteins in silk and chitin. Since chitin can easily be extracted from discarded shrimp shells, schrilk is cheap and easy to produce.

Since schrilk is biodegradable, it could be molded into plastic bags, garbage bags and diapers that would not sit in landfills for hundreds of years.

_____________________
Zach first discovered his passion for science as a high school student at Trinity School in New York City. He now attends Carleton College, where he plans on majoring in Physics. His interests in science include high energy physics, medicine, and technology.

About Zach Lynn

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Science Friday.

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