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Chitin Could Be Used To Build Tools and Habitats On Mars, Study Finds

A team of scientists from the Singapore University of Technology and Design discovered that, using simple chemistry, the organic polymer chitin — contained in the exoskeletons of insects and crustaceans — can easily be transformed into a viable building material for basic tools and habitats. The findings have been published in the journal PLOS ONE. Ars Technica reports: “The technology was originally developed to create circular ecosystems in urban environments,” said co-author Javier Fernandez. “But due to its efficiency, it is also the most efficient and scalable method to produce materials in a closed artificial ecosystem in the extremely scarce environment of a lifeless planet or satellite.” [T]he authors of the current paper point out that most terrestrial manufacturing strategies that could fit the bill typically require specialized equipment and a hefty amount of energy. However, “Nature presents successful strategies of life adapting to harsh environments,” the authors wrote. “In biological organisms, rigid structures are formed by integrating inorganic filler proceed from the environment at a low energy cost (e.g., calcium carbonate) and incorporated into an organic matrix (e.g., chitin) produced at a relatively high metabolic cost.”

Fernandez and his colleagues maintain that chitin is likely to be part of any planned artificial ecosystem because it is so plentiful in nature. It’s the primary component of fish scales and fungal cell walls, for example, as well as the exoskeletons of crustaceans and insects. In fact, insects have already been targeted as a key source of protein for a possible Martian base. And since the chitin component of insects has limited nutritional value for humans, extracting it to make building materials “does not hamper or compete with the food supply,” the authors wrote. “Rather, it is a byproduct of it.”

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