Texas A&M Researchers Use Insect-Derived Chemicals to Create Biodegradable Plastics

Aug. 15, 2023
Team says the process uses fewer natural resources than existing plant-based bioplastics.

Researchers from Texas A&M University say they have developed methods to create biodegradable plastics by using insect-derived chemicals, a process the team believes is more resource-friendly than plant-based bioplastics, the American Chemical Society said in an Aug. 14 news release.

The team is extracting and purifying chitin from the discarded carcasses of adult black soldier flies and then converting the purified chitin into a similar polymer known as chitosan. These steps transform chitosan into useful bioplastics, such as superabsorbent hydrogels, which are 3D polymer networks that absorb water, the research team says.

The material could potentially provide raw materials for plastic production and potentially consume discarded plastics, aligning with circular economy principles.

"Ultimately, we'd like the insects to eat the waste plastic as their food source, and then we would harvest them again and collect their components to make new plastics," says Karen Wooley, the project's principal investigator. "So the insects would not only be the source, but they would also then consume the discarded plastics."

The absorbent properties also could be applied in agriculture for use in cropland soil to capture floodwater and then slowly release moisture during subsequent droughts, Wooley says. Unlike plant-based resources, the process does not require materials harvested and used in other industries.

“We're taking something that's quite literally garbage and making something useful out of it," says Cassidy Tibbetts, a graduate student working on the project in Wooley's lab at Texas A&M.

The team collected the insect carcasses from a project that Wooley’s colleague, Jeffery Tomberlin, has been working on involving black soldier flies. The immature insects are increasingly being raised for animal feed and to consume wastes. The adult flies have a short life span after their breeding days are over and are then discarded.  At Tomberlin's suggestion, those adult carcasses became the new starting material for Wooley's team.

The researchers received support and funding from the Welch Foundation and a private donation. They will present their results at the fall meeting of the American Chemical Society. 

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