Design Students Harness Chitin (nature’s biopolymer marvel)

If you are a big fan of crabs, prawns (shrimp) or lobster dishes you will know that after your battle with peeling each morsel from their brick red exoskeletons you are left with a large pile of “waste”. This waste can be cooked and blended and turned into a tasty bisque but thats not everyones cup of tea and most get tossed into the garbage. That was until four design students at “The Shellworks” came up with a simple menufacturing process where the shell waste could be transformed into a true biodegradable and recyclable bioplastic.

These Four designers from The Royal College of Art Imperial College have developed new manufacturing processes that turn seafood waste into biodegradable, recyclable bioplastic. They have built a series of machines that extract, form and recycle the material, which they believe could be used as a replacement for various single-use plastics. With artfulness and humour they show their work in progress below in this short educational video.

The project uses chitin; the world’s second most abundant biopolymer. Chitin is found in crustaceans, insects and fungi, but it needs to be chemically or biologically extracted from the source before it can be turned into the material. As crustacean shells are currently a vast waste product and easy to come by in metropolitan areas I imagine this was why it was used as a first choice for collecting by the students.


Currently, chitosan is expensive to buy and its extraction process is time-consuming. “We spent weeks trying to extract even a handful of chitosan, which was when we realised we needed the right tools for the job,” the group says.

The team then built a small scale extractor to lower the barriers to entry for experimentation with the bioplastic. The extractor is designed to offer complete control over each parameter of the process in order to allow for further experimentation at the polymer level of the material.

Chitin extractor

Not using additives was key to the team’s ethos, as this could affect its recyclability. One core discovery that came from this was that the material is in fact extremely versatile; they found that by experimenting with the ratios of the base ingredients, they could achieve many different material properties. They were then able to control stiffness, flexibility and optical clarity as well as the thickness of the material.

The group identified difficulties in forming the material as a key barrier to its widespread adoption. In order to address this, they built machines that can form the bioplastic using new manufacturing methods tailored to how the material behaves.


Each of the various extraction, manufacturing and recycling machines designed by the students.

Introducing their three new manufacturing machines:


Dippy creates practical and useful 3D forms.




Vaccy makes functional, moulded relief packaging.



Sheety creates practical single sheets which can be used in a variety of ways.3073954B-2BDE-4F75-BAC1-F9B776EFFCAA

The material is easily recyclable and can turn back into the
original bioplastic solution. “We believe that this will allow for more experimentation without creating waste,” says the team. At the end of life, it can also act as a natural, non-polluting fertiliser.

Chitin waste and recycling machine

The group has used their custom machines to prototype potential applications, each of which exploits a specific property of the material to demonstrate its potential. These prototypes range from anti- bacterial blister packaging and food-safe carrier bags to self-fertilising plant pots.

The group states that “By designing scalable manufacturing processes, applications tailored to the material, and eco-positive waste streams, we believe we can demonstrate how chitosan bioplastic could become a viable alternative for many of the plastic products we use today.”

I questioned the team on their passion for this subject and why they decided to work in this particular area:

“We are fascinated with new materials and how we can apply them to tackle our biggest global challenges. This venture is the marriage of our personal interests and collective passion to create a positive impact on the environment we live in.”

“We want to create a solution that is truly sustainable; one that degrades quickly without a negative impact. More importantly we want to create a product that makes it easy to be sustainable. We are determined to implement a solution that doesn’t require a change in consumer behaviour but instead works with current behavior and doesn’t harm the environment.”

It is very heartening to see the passion and enthusiasm for solutions to a current waste crisis being produced by individuals around the world.  This is a project I would like to hear more about in the future.

The Shellworks is a project by Ed Jones, Insiya Jafferjee, Amir Afshar, and Andrew Edwards. who are currently enrolled on a joint masters in Innovation Design Engineering at the Royal College of Art & Imperial College.

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