February 10th, 2012

Is Shilk the Next Plastic?

A new material called Shilk may eventually replace plastic. This unique material was developed by the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University and its origins may surprise you.

As its name suggests, the material is made up of silk and chitin which is extracted from shrimp shells. Insect cuticle was the inspiration for this new material. This cuticle, although it appears to be very delicate, is actually quite strong. It can provide protection, without adding weight. The researchers found that Shilk is as strong as aluminum allow, but provides protection at half the weight.

Shilk is completely biodegradable and the components necessary are incredible inexpensive. Chitin is considered a shrimp waste product and heretofore was simply discarded. It is strong, flexible and has the potential to not only replace plastic, but also to revolutionize the medical supply world. Shilk can be used to suture wounds, and can also be used to build a “scaffold” for tissue regeneration. By controlling how much water is used during the manufacturing process for this material, researchers were able to vary the shape as well as the elasticity, from quite rigid to very flexible.

“When we talk about the Wyss Institute’s mission to create bioinspired materials and products, Shrilk is an example of what we have in mind,” said Wyss Institute Founding Director Donald Ingber, M.D., Ph.D. “It has the potential to be both a solution to some of today’s most critical environmental problems and a stepping stone toward significant medical advances.”

Shilk also has the potential to replace plastic thanks to its strong but biodegradable nature. It could be used to manufacture trash bags and even disposable diapers. Its quick degeneration would address the very real issue of landfill overcrowding and provide a safe and economical alternative to plastic.

While Shilk is still in the early developmental stages, it is clear that this new material has real potential.

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