Can seafood cast-offs be turned into biodegradable plastic bags?

Murray Research

Most people would look at discarded crab and shrimp shells and see something to be tossed in the trash. But when Professor Chris Murray contemplates these humble cast-offs of the seafood industry, he sees an opportunity to prove the old saying that necessity is the mother of invention.

As a physics PhD student, Murray began researching how chitosan, a molecule extracted from these shells, could be used to create biodegradable plastics. Now a Professor with Orillia's Department of Interdisciplinary Studies, Murray has put his talent for finding answers to serious environmental problems front and centre.

He is doing this in a way that unites Lakehead University's commitments to community engagement, economic development, and, especially, student-centred learning. Over the past year, Murray has built a research partnership with Monteco, a Canadian company focused on green technology. The roots of the collaboration spring from Murray's time as a scientist in Monteco's Research & Development division where he conducted wastewater, stormwater, and biodegradable plastics research.

It was his diverse research interests and having the scope to explore them more fully that attracted Murray to Lakehead. In a fortuitous coincidence, Murray's brother Ben, a graduate of Lakehead's Thunder Bay campus, saw the Orillia job posting for a Professor of Interdisciplinary Studies and told his brother. Given that Orillia is also Murray's hometown, it seemed like destiny.

"Once I knew that I would be joining the Interdisciplinary Studies department, I started thinking of how Monteco and Lakehead could collaborate," Murray says. One of his previous projects involved commercializing a product called Sorbtive Media for the stormwater filtration company Imbrium Systems, a subsidiary of Monteco.

Sorbtive is a gravel-like medium that prevents destructive algae blooms by absorbing phosphorus and other pollutants that drain into waterways. Algae thrive by feeding on dissolved phosphorus and can easily take over lakes and rivers. Disturbingly, the toxins in algae can contaminate drinking water and have been identified as factors in the onset of neurological diseases, cancer, and skin disorders. The growth of algae blooms also wreaks havoc on entire ecosystems by poisoning plant and bird life as well as causing fish kills.

Although Sorbtive had been on the market for a year and a half, Murray was certain that he could make it greener. From this belief, Lakehead Orillia's inaugural industry partnership was born. The six-month project gave Orillia students, like project lead Kayla Snyder, the chance to work in Monteco's labs and access specialized tools and expertise. It also ensured that their research aligned with community needs. "It's a win-win situation," Murray explains. "These companies are solving problems - they take universities' ideas and run with them. It's terrific for students to be part of that."

When asked what has stood out most from this experience, he responds, "I continue to be blown away by Simcoe County's enthusiasm for working with Lakehead in the process of discovery and the ability of our students to rise to this challenge. Monteco has said they are the best students they'd ever had." The results of the Sorbtive research laid the groundwork for further initiatives with Monteco. Murray and his students are currently working with the company to reduce the environmental impact of conventional plastics by making the production process much more energy efficient.

Partnerships with other regional organizations are underway as Lakehead University and industries in Central Ontario seek opportunities to share and build on knowledge. "Collaborating is easy to do," says Murray. "I encourage businesses to get in touch with us whether they are a small, medium, or large company." With this combination of intellectual curiosity and entrepreneurial spirit, Chris Murray is raising the bar for industry research and opening new doors for his students and his community.