Dec. 22, 1998 McCLELLANVILLE -- Clemson University researchers have developed a new process to turn crab shells into natural marketable products. Food and packaging scientists Ronald L. Thomas and Robert F. Testin at Clemson are working with W.E. (Eddie) Gordon, owner of the South Carolina Crab Company in McClellanville, to process crab shells into promising new product lines.
"Ninety percent of the shellfish is discarded in traditional seafood processing operations around the world," Thomas said. "We've developed a process to completely eliminate that and use 100 percent of the product."
The process is a closed-loop system that extracts the remainder of food-grade meat from the shells, then reduces the shells to their primary materials D chitin and calcium D with no discharge into the environment. The chitin can then be converted into chitosan and glucosamine, products that are in high demand by the food supplement industry, the medical profession, manufacturing and agriculture.
The food supplement, or nutraceutical industry, sells glucosamine as a treatment for chronic arthritis and chitosan as a natural fiber for reducing cholesterol and absorbing fat. Physicians use chitosan film as an "artificial skin" to treat burns and severe wounds because of its antimicrobial properties. Manufacturers use chitosan as a natural polymer to remove heavy metals from industrial waste water. Agriculture uses chitosan as a feed supplement for hogs and as a seed coating. The cosmetic industry uses it in shampoos and face creams.
"Chitin is the second most abundant natural polymer in the world after cellulose," Thomas said. "We're just beginning to explore all its possible applications."
Gordon's South Carolina Crab Company is developing a prototype system to process food-grade chitin, calcium and crab meat from the shells. The system is currently undergoing testing and refinements, with the possibility of commercial application throughout the entire seafood processing industry. Also on the horizon is the possibility of building a manufacturing facility to convert the chitin into chitosan and glucosamine.
"This partnership is an excellent example of what higher education should be doing," said Gordon. "Clemson has developed a new technology that makes it possible for South Carolina companies to compete in the world market.
"Lately, there's been a decline of seafood processors in the state because the profitability has not always been there. This technology makes it profitable for us to compete with foreign processors."
The partnership between Clemson and Gordon came about as a result of research that packaging scientists Bob Testin and Pete Vergano have been conducting on biopolymer films for food packaging since 1990. A visiting scholar from South Korea told them about the many uses of chitosan in Asia, including as a biopolymer film.
This led the Clemson researchers to contact Gordon as a supplier of crab shells that they processed into chitosan in their laboratory. This evolved into a mutual interest to develop a commercial processing operation that would utilize the shells and produce a second income source for seafood processors. Clemson food and packaging scientist Ron Thomas was the one who developed this process.
"We took the Korean technology and combined it with filtration technology to create this closed-loop, non-polluting system," said Thomas. "It puts a new twist on seafood processing. Now, processors can probably make more money from the shells than from the crab meat alone."
This research is supported by the South Carolina Agriculture and Forestry Research System based at Clemson. "This is an excellent example of how Clemson's public service research benefits South Carolina's industries and private citizens," said James R. Fischer, director of the research system.
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