Scientist Mark MacLachlan’s lab at the University of British Columbia is stacked with the empty shells of various crustaceans, like shrimp, crab, and lobster. It sounds like the aftermath of a seafood banquet, but MacLachlan is trying to transform these shells into something usable: materials to make coffee cups and battery parts.


Many researchers are looking to nature for inspiration when designing new materials. Some have suggested, as my colleague Sarah Emerson pointed out, that we could make cities out of synthetic bone, for example. “There’s a big drive to make new materials from nature, to get away from using oil products,” MacLachlan told me. And nature has spent millions of years perfecting its design.

MacLachlan is interested in chitin, a biomaterial found in the shells of iridescent beetles and crustaceans. (He typically works with shrimp and crab, he told me. Lobster is harder to get on the West coast.)

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