Biologists from Kyoto University in Japan have turned a crab’s
shell transparent. More than just a neat party trick, the
research into see-through structures could help the
construction of flat panel displays, solar cells and bendy
Muhammad Iftekhar Shams and his team at Kyoto University took an
entire (dead) crab, and treated its body to a brew of acids and
chemicals. Hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide and ethanol stripped
the body of minerals, proteins, lipids, fats and pigments.
This left a crab shell made entirely of translucent chitin. Chitin is a long-chain polymer
that is the main component of crustacean exoskeletons.
Finally, the shell was immersed in an acrylic resin monomer.
Polymerisation kicked in (monomer molecules react together to form
polymer chains), and the team ended up with a perfect, ghostly
recreation of a
crab, only now completely see-through.
Buoyed by their success, Shams and colleagues crushed up chitin
from crab shells and spread the powdered material into a
nanocomposite sheet. Then, much like the crab body, the paper-like
sheet was given the acrylic resin monomer treatment, leading to an
optically transparent panel.
The material is exciting because it doesn’t expand or lose its
stability when heated—in fact, it’s ten times as resistant to
heat as traditional materials such as glass-fiber epoxies. This
makes it a potential material for building bendable screens or
solar cells that are moulded into shapes. It has a high light
“This class of materials is an interesting candidate for
transparent substrates in next-generation electronic devices such
as flexible displays and solar cells,” the team writes in the
abstract—published by the Royal Society of
Better still is that chitin—the secret ingredient—is
abundant in nature. Not only is it found in the shells of crabs,
lobsters and shrimps, this adaptable natural material also shows up
in the cell walls of fungi, the exoskeletons of arthropods and
insects, the tongue-like radulas of mollusks, and the beaks of
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Transparent crab shell holds the secret to bendable screens