Scientists have discovered a wholly novel use for semen — if you can stomach it.
Researchers at Tianjin University in China have developed a sustainable, biodegradable plastic derived from salmon sperm and vegetable oil, which might just be the most viable solution yet for the world’s imminent plastic pollution problem.
The promising substance was created by extracting strands of DNA from the sperm of salmon — though the stuff could come from just about any living thing — and dissolving the genetic matter in water with ionomers, a type of polymer commonly found in adhesives, to produce a gel that’s pliable enough to be molded into various forms. The material is then freeze-dried to set the shape.
Their experimentation led to the creation of a rumpled-looking mug, as well as puzzle pieces, all made of what they call “DNA-based plastic.”
Both DNA and plastics are made of polymers, which may be naturally occurring or synthetic — the former abundantly available in plants, animals and bacteria, and the latter relying on petroleum oil, a k a fossil fuels.
The result looks and feels somewhat like plastic but produces less than 5% of the carbon emissions generated during typical polystyrene plastic manufacturing, according to a new study published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.
“To the best of our knowledge, our reported DNA plastics are the most environmentally sustainable materials of any known plastics,” said lead researcher Dayong Yang, The Times of London reported last week.
Of course, plastic products are often used to contain liquid. So, as unseemly as the final product seems, researchers suggested that such bioplastic vessels would have to be treated with a waterproofing material, which could diminish its recyclability. Other useful applications for the substance include electronics and other forms of packaging.
Yang’s team found their invention “showed obvious superiority in terms of biodegradability, the production of by-products, [carbon] emission, energy consumption and processing quality,” they wrote in their report.
Their research comes as scientists scramble to find solutions to reduce plastic waste. In the US alone, more than 30 million tons of plastic are discarded annually, only 8% of which gets recycled, according to a 2019 report by the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Much of the rest ends up in landfills, while another 1 to 2 million tons is littered on land and in water, where it may be broken down into microplastics, and later consumed by animals and humans alike.
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