The old DuPont facility off Jefferson Davis Highway in Chesterfield, Virginia, doesn't look like ground zero for the next technological revolution. There's a welding shop next door and a lumber supply company a short walk away. Silicon Valley it ain't. But Richard Feldman, the director of public affairs for Mari Signum, the company that leased the place, speaks with an evangelist's fervor about what might happen there: a leap forward in materials science that could help solve the world's plastics problem.
By now that problem needs little recitation. Because they are so useful for so many purposes, plastics are ubiquitous. About 300 million tons are produced worldwide every year, one-third of that for disposable packaging. But plastics are also an environmental scourge because they do not biodegrade. The price of plastics does not account for floating plastic islands in the oceans, microplastics ingested by wildlife, and other hidden (or not-so-hidden) costs—costs that will linger for decades, if not centuries. One study by the World Economic Forum contends that, given current trend lines, by 2050 there will be more plastics in the ocean by weight than fish.
If only some more environmentally friendly substance could take plastic's place. Of course, it would have to be biodegradable. And abundant. And easy to obtain—not to mention inexpensive. And like plastic, it would have to be able to serve a vast spectrum of functions, not just one or two.
There is such a substance, Feldman says: chitin.
Chitin is a naturally occurring substance, derived from glucose, that is found in fish scales, butterfly wings, and—of particular note—the shells of crustaceans such as lobster and shrimp. It is one of the most abundant materials on the planet, after the cellulose that makes up the cell walls of plants.
Henri Braconnot, director of the Botanical Gardens at the French Academy of Sciences, discovered chitin (in mushrooms) in 1811. A decade later another scientist, Auguste Odier, found it in the exoskeletons of beeetles, and named it "chiton," from the Greek word for "tunic."
Chitin (pronounced KITE-in) has generated technological interest for decades. "Insect and Fish Shells Can Be Converted Into 'Silk'; Berlin Chemists Discover Way to Make Threads And Film From Chitin," The New York Times reported in 1926. Six decades later, The Times reported on how "crab shells are being turned into a natural insecticide" by turning the shells into chitin granules. Today chitin or its derivative, chitosan, can be found in fertilizers, food processing, paint coatings, water filtration, wine-making, dissolvable stitches, wound dressings, and cosmetics. You can even buy chitosan at Walmart for its supposed weight-loss properties.
Chitin owes its versatility to its broad array of properties: It is biodegradable, non-toxic (the EPA says "no risks to humans are expected when products containing chitin are used according to label directions"), and anti-microbial; chitosan is water-soluble. Being natural, it is environmentally friendly (again, the EPA: "Risks to the environment are not expected because … chitin is abundant in nature").
The only downside is that, to date, extracting chitin from crustacean shells—where it is bound up with calcium carbonate, which makes it hard—has required a fairly toxic process involving chemicals such as nitric and sulfuric acids.
But that is changing. A Scottish company called CuanTec—which, like Mari Signum, claims to be "leading the revolution against petroleum plastic"—uses a bacterial fermentation process to extract chitin for biodegradable food packaging. Its latest: compostable, single-use milk bottles.
In California, entrepreneur John Felts is hoping to replace standard surfboards, which are made out of polyurethane foam, with a similar foam made out of chitin. And polyurethane foam shows up in far more than surfboards: It's also used in cars, furniture, packaging, and much more. So Felt's company, CruzFoam, trades heavily on its product's environmental benefits. And Penn State is trumpeting the advantages of a product researchers there have developed. Half cellulose and half chitin, the new material "could eliminate millions of tons of petroleum-based plastic annually," the school says.
Mari Signum, a part of Texas-based Sustainable Sea Products International (the company also, conveniently, owns Dickies Seafood) has patented its own chitin extraction process using an ionized liquid far less hazardous than the acids used elsewhere. Company chairman Victoria White—a Canadian native and Cordon Bleu chef, among other things—says terms such as "renewability" and "sustainability" are buzzwords "used rather loosely in green promotional advertising." But Mari Signum really means it: "We may not change the world, but we sure as heck plan on showing the world how to change."
The company currently is finishing construction of the first set of shell bins, microwave ovens, evaporators, and other equipment at its Bellwood facility. Its CEO, John Keyes—who sits on the board of the International Foundation for the Conservation of Nature—says Chesterfield's economic-development staff has been "off-the-charts helpful" as the company got off the ground. An official launch will take place in under a month.
Not every new technology turns out to be a world-changer. (See: Segway, digital audio tape, or Flooz, one of the first attempts at a virtual currency). And chitin faces major issues of scale. At present, CruzFoam says, the world produces 30,000 tons of industrial-grade chitin each year, and "every year landfills are filled with 8 million tons of shrimp, crab, and lobster shell waste." Which is far more than you might think—but still less than 3 percent of the 300 million tons of plastics produced each year. (And those 8 million tons of shells will not produce 8 million tons of chitin.)
Still, if the "chitin revolution" succeeds, then it likely will generate other technological advances down the road, just as the use of petroleum as a substitute for whale oil eventually led to the development of plastics.
You never know. But those looking for a sign that the fates are smiling on chitin might note the address of the building Mari Signum found most suited to its purposes: 8310 Shell Road.