Mind & Matter


Insect Cuticle-Inspired Polymer

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Insect cuticle inspires a new bioplastic. Photo: Wyss Institute.

When I had the chance to visit the laboratories of the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University this fall, director Donald Ingber showed me a new material intended to mimic insect cuticle. The composite is called “Shrilk” because of its constituent proteins from silk and chitin—which is extracted from disposed shrimp shells.

Ingber and other researchers at the Wyss anticipate the new material to replace plastics in consumer products and medical applications, based on its favorable properties. It has a similar strength and resilience as aluminum with only half the weight. It may be produced cheaply from waste materials and is fully biodegradable. Shrilk may also be made in a wide range of properties, varying from rigid to elastic, depending on the water content used in the manufacturing process.

“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,” says Ingber. “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.”



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About the Blogger

Blaine Brownell

thumbnail image Minnesota-based architect and author Blaine Brownell, AIA, is a self-defined materials researcher and sustainable building adviser. His "Product of the Week" emails and three volumes of Transmaterial (2006, 2008, 2010) provide designers with a steady flow of inspiration—a 21st-century Grammar of Ornament. Blaine has practiced architecture in Japan and the U.S. and has been published in more than 40 design, business, and science publications. The recipient of a Fulbright fellowship for 2006–07, he researched contemporary Japanese material innovations at the Tokyo University of Science. He currently teaches architecture and co-directs the M.S. in Sustainable Design program at the University of Minnesota. His book Matter in the Floating World was published by Princeton Architectural Press in 2011.