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Green polymers inspired by biology

Published: 13 August 2018

McGill University chemistry professor Matthew Harrington is aiming to develop a renewable alternative to petrochemical plastics by mimicking the astonishing chemistry of the velvet worm – a creature that has made a name for itself through its projectile slime.

Inhabiting the forest floors of Australia and South America, velvet worms catch their prey by shooting out a jet of liquid that rapidly thickens to a sticky gel before hardening into polymer fibres comparable in stiffness to nylon.

“It’s this process of going from a fluid to a polymeric fibre comparable to a plastic that interested me,” Harrington says. “You can actually take slime from the organism and form these fibres by hand.”

Because this ingenious chemical transformation occurs outside the animal’s body, it is likely the process can be mimicked in a laboratory. What’s more, Harrington and his colleagues have discovered the fibres can be dissolved in water.

“The amazing thing is you can take this solution of dissolved fibres and form more fibres from it,” Harrington says. “It’s entirely recyclable, using water as a solvent.”

While Harrington and his colleagues in Germany continue to advance their understanding of the velvet worm’s natural chemistry, Harrington’s success in obtaining a grant from the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI) Ideas Fund will enable him to start exploring a synthetic process to emulate the animal’s eco-friendly plastic production.

About the MSSI Ideas Fund

The MSSI Ideas Fund provides small amounts of seed funding to enable faculty and students alike to explore bold projects and novel ideas which, if successful, could make a significant impact on sustainability. The funding allows recipients to explore the feasibility of ideas before dedicating significant resources to flesh them out.

› Learn more about the McGill Sustainability Systems Initiative (MSSI)

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