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Beetle shell plastic

Beetle shells are not the first thing many people think of when talking about material development. But one designer has certainly seen the potential in insect shells. Designer Aagje Hoekstra has produced a bio-plastic from pressed beetle shells together.

The material has been dubbed Coleoptera by the designer, after the scientific name for the beetle. It looks a little creepy perhaps, as the outline of the beetle shells is still visible in the finished, paper-thin material.

So how is it made? The armour in beetle shells is full of chitin. This very common natural substance is found in many organisms, from insect shells to bird beaks and butterfly wings. Chitin is an organic hydrocarbon that transforms into chitosan, a similar molecule that bonds slightly better under pressure. Chitosan is frequently harvested from the shells of sea-creatures.

The beetle shells are heated to 200°C, which transforms the chitin into a useful bio-polymer. After pressing and cooling, the material that remains is heat-resistant and translucent. Aagje has used the material in several pieces of jewelry and light-weight objects. Given that the Coleoptera material is water resistant too, it may find other uses soon.

For inspiration, Aagje studied mealworms, which are the larvae of the mealworm beetle and are used in the food industry. When it dies, the beetle is often considered to be waste material – though there have been interesting applications. The designer decided this didn’t need to be the case, and went on to develop the coleoptera material.

This use of biomimicry is a great example of how designers can apply lessons learnt from nature in design, from the most basic level of the material up. Here, the designer shows the originating structure by leaving the shell outlines intact, even in the finished, layered material.

Beetle image via Wikipedia/Commons.

All other images © Aagje Hoekstra.


  1. James Bell says:

    Isn’t humanity getting to the point in our evolution where we don’t need to kill thousands of animals to create material novelty for a wealthy few?