BM02: Multiphase Fluids for Materials Science—Droplets, Bubbles and Emulsions
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BM11: Modeling, Characterization, Fabrication and Applications of Advanced Biopolymers—Where Form Meets Function

Marco Rolandi, University of California, Santa Cruz

Serendipitous Misadventures in Biomaterials Research and Commercialization

Written by Hortense Le Ferrand

Marco Rolandi has his “hero”: chitin. It is the second most abundant polysaccharide on earth, the “cellulose of the sea.”

His research team has found that chitin from squids and silk from cocoons mixed in hexafluoroisopropanol (HFIP) self-assemble into transparent composites with nanofibrous structure and tunable mechanics. Also, chitin from squids and gelatin from pigs mixed in HFIP result into transparent composites that could be seeded with cells. In addition, chitin can be shaped using soft lithography, replica molding, or three-dimensional printing. Microneedles of chitin, 600 µm tall, can be used to penetrate the skin as a tuberculosis or allergy test. It can also be used as a biodegradable wound dressing. However, despite all this, “the fancy biomaterial was not suitable for a device to use on your body,” Rolandi said. Indeed, the cost for the manufacture, clinical tests, and risk of failure is still way higher than for common surgical-grade stainless steel and not commercially viable.

Turning away from the medical field, Rolandi and his research team have now launched a start-up to produce foams out of chitin. These foams can serve to replace the polystyrene that is omnipresent around us and that unfortunately accumulate in our oceans too. Hipsters in Santa Cruz “dream to take their surfboard, grind it, and use it as a fertilizer to grow tomatoes.” Time will tell us if chitin foam, or Cruz foam, as the name of the start-up, is this Graal material.

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