- Associated Press - Wednesday, July 30, 2014

TUSCALOOSA, Ala. (AP) - University of Alabama chemist Robin Rogers imagines a future where shrimp shells could become more than a smelly seafood byproduct.

“I believe in what I would call a chitin economy. I personally believe, if properly developed, the material you can develop from chitin and the markets you could sell them in would make the shrimp shell worth more than the meat,” said Rogers, an owner and founder of 525 Solutions, a startup company housed in UA’s Alabama Innovation and Mentoring of Entrepreneurs center on campus.

The company, which is exploring a host of applications for chitin extracted from the shells, received roughly $1.5 million from U.S. Department of Energy to fund its research of a chitin-based absorbent material for use in a process to extract uranium from the ocean. The company previously proved the concept of using the chitin-based material for the application.

Gabriela Gurau, a chemist and CEO of the UA-based company, said the company is in the process of signing the contract for the grant.

“In our proposal, there is no way we as a small company can compete with terrestrial mining,” said Rogers, a Robert Ramsay Chair of Chemistry at UA and director of UA’s Center for Green Manufacturing. “We are not going to be a mining company. What we are going to do is develop chitin that is lower cost because we have other uses for the material.”

The company is also exploring biomedical and other applications. The company received a National Science Foundation grant in 2012 for its work on a new chitin-based bandage.

The grant from the Department of Energy’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer program will enable the company to scale up the process and test the economic feasibility of using the chitin-based absorbent material as a cost-effective and environmentally-friendly alternative to plastics for the extraction of uranium from seawater.

The company is collaborating with a researcher at the University of Texas at Austin studying the cost effectiveness of the process and Jonathan Bonner of civil and environmental engineering firm CFM Group of Tuscaloosa.

“There are a lot of engineering problems to be solved,” Gurau said.

The current small-scale process may not work on a larger scale, she added.

The company’s work begins with dried shrimp shells from the Gulf Coast Agricultural and Seafood Co Op in Bayou La Batre. The shells are ground to a consistency similar to a fine table salt, said Julia Shamshina, the company’s chief technology officer.

The chemists dissolve the shells in a solution of ionic liquids heated with a microwave apparatus in the AIME Center. The ionic liquids are efficient solvents that mostly leave the proteins, lipids and chitin polymers that make up the shells intact, Shamshina said.

The researchers use a desktop electrospinning apparatus in Shelby Hall to create nanomats from the chitin harvested from the solution of shells and ionic liquids.

“Essentially, electro-spinning is a process where you apply high voltage, as much as 30,000 volts,” Shamshina said.

The amber, slightly viscous solution is extruded from needles suspended above a water bath with a charged plate below the tank. Shamshina said the chitin reforms into nano-fibers in the water while the other molecules remain in solution. The fibers, which appear similar to spider’s silk but finer, form mats in a couple of hours, Gurau said.

The plan is to scale the process up from 3 liters to 20 liters, Gurau said.

As part of the scale-up, the company plans to combine the operations so the process to dissolve the shells and spin the mats would be continuous, Shamshina said.

“This is essentially to determine its economic feasibility,” Shamshina said.

The most expensive part of the process so far, considering their source material is a by-product of the state’s seafood industry, is the ionic liquid, according to Gurau. The hope is the solvent can be recaptured for future use.

The researchers behind the company see the process as a potential boon for the seafood industry, noting the seafood processors currently are either paying to store or dispose of the shells as a waste by-product or processing the material and attempting to sell it as fertilizer.

“The whole concept was and still is you can take a waste product from the co-op in Bayou la Batre and make a high-value material from it,” Rogers said.

If the second phase is successful, it would lay the groundwork for a push to build a pilot plant with the help of investors, Gurau said.

The DOE project began a few years ago following a successful field test by Japanese researchers in the late 1990s to capture the uranium that naturally occurs in seawater, Rogers said. The project was exploring oceanic uranium as an alternative to terrestrial mining of the element to fuel nuclear power plants.

The concentration of uranium is incredibly low in the ocean, but the low concentration is offset by the vast volume, Rogers said. Field tests by Japanese researchers collected a kilogram of uranium using absorbent materials submerged in the ocean for six months.

Rogers and his colleagues believe the chitin-based material being explored by the startup could offer a more cost-effective and environmentally-friendly absorbent material for the process.

“We have a very strong polymer that comes from the oceans and one that the oceans know how to degrade when it gets free,” Rogers said. “I would rather have tons of chitin because chitin breaks down. If it gets free, it easily biodegrades.”

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Information from: The Tuscaloosa News, http://www.tuscaloosanews.com

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