Plastics production has increased from 0.5 to 380 million tons per year since 1950. The increasing use of plastics, which in most cases are prepared by polymerization of monomers derived from a nonrenewable source, creates major waste management and environmental problems. Most of the plastic produced is used to make disposable items or other short-lived products that are discarded within a year of manufacture. These objects account for approximately 30 percent of the waste we generate, which accumulates in landfills or contaminates large areas of marine habitats – from remote shorelines and heavily populated coastlines to areas of the deep sea that were previously thought to be virtually inaccessible. These factors highlight the unsustainability of the current use of plastics, which is driving a growing interest in biomaterials that are fully biodegradable and recyclable.
At the Fermart lab we are developing the next generation of materials for sustainable development. Our first version of “Shrilk”, based on the chemistry and molecular design of the insect cuticle, is transparent, biodegradable, and has an ultimate strength in the same range as aluminum alloys, but at half their density. It is made of silk proteins and waste material from the fishing industry (i.e. chitin). Seafood processing factories generate over 250 billion tons of chitin biopolymer that is typically dumped back into the ocean, negatively affecting coastal ecosystems.
Shrilk represents a groundbreaking approach to sustainable development. It is based on the association of natural components and their molecular design as a sole entity. We demonstrated how structural natural materials with engineering relevance, are only achievable by controlling both characteristics and their relation. This approach, linking together manufacture, biological design, and biomolecules, has started a complete new approach to sustainable and bioinspired materials.
Shrilk is considered one of the most important advancements for sustainable development in the last decade. It has been reviewed by the most prominent media outlets around the world, and has been referred as “one of the materials that will change the future of manufacturing” (Scientific American), as a “Supermaterial” (National Geographic) and as “the material that will save the world” (BBC).