MIT Researchers Are Replacing Plastic With Silk

A new biodegradable system based on silk has been developed to replace microplastics

MIT research
Image: MIT

Harmful Chemicals and plastics are two significant threats to the ecosystem. Researchers at MIT, after dedicated research, have now developed a biodegradable system based on silk.

It was created to replace microplastics, which are added to paints, agricultural products, and cosmetics.

Replacing microplastics with silk

Microplastics are tiny plastic particles found globally in soil, air, and water, and they are increasingly identified as a severe pollution threat. Unfortunately, they are also making their way into the bloodstream of people and animals due to constant exposure.

A lot of these microplastics are added intentionally to a range of products, including paints, detergents, agricultural chemicals, and cosmetics. As a result, it amounts to an astonishing 50,000 tons a year in the EU alone, as per the European Chemicals Agency.

The European Union has already passed a resolution stating that these non-biodegradable microplastics will be eliminated by 2025 as the search for a more eco-friendly substitute continues.

A team of MIT researchers now provides a silk-based system that can give easily manufactured and inexpensive substitutes. The new innovative process is provided in a research paper in the journal Small, written by MIT postdoc Muchun Liu, MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering Benedetto Marelli, and five others at the chemical company BASF in Germany and the U.S.

Microplastics, widely used in industrial products, protect certain active ingredients from being degraded by exposure to moisture or air until they are required. It provides a slow and gradual release of active ingredients for some time as it minimizes the adverse effects of the surroundings.

For instance, vitamins are packed in microcapsules into capsules or pills as herbicides and pesticides are enveloped similarly. However, the material used for microencapsulation is plastic which persists in the environment for quite some time. A consistent concern is the lack of a practical, economical, biodegradable substitute.

The European Chemical Agency estimates that these microplastics represent around 10-15% of the environment; however, a nature-based biodegradable replacement can quickly address this source.

Marelli states, “We cannot solve the whole microplastics problem with one solution that fits them all,” he says. “Ten percent of a big number is still a big number. … We’ll solve climate change and pollution of the world one percent at a time.”

Liu also claims that silk protein is inexpensive and readily available, unlike high-quality silk threads often used in delicate fabrics. The creation process is also straightforward as it can be easily dissolved through a scalable water-based process.

The processing is convenient and tunable. Thus, the resulting material quickly adapts to the work on the existing manufacturing equipment offering a “drop-in” solution via existing factories.

Marelli states, “there is a strong need to achieve encapsulation of high-content actives to open the door to commercial use. The only way to have an impact is where we can not only replace a synthetic polymer with a biodegradable counterpart but also achieve performance that is the same, if not better.”

This could finally be the innovative breakthrough material that can help convert to a more biodegradable system



I am a technophile, writer, YouTuber, and SEO analyst who is insane about tech and enjoys experimenting with numerous devices. An engineer by degree but a writer from the heart. I run a Youtube channel known as “XtreamDroid” that focuses on Android apps, how-to guides, and tips & tricks.
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