From Fly Waste to Green Tech: Big-headed Flies Create Biodegradable Hydrogels

Dr. Jeffrey Tomblin of Texas A&M University in the United States has been studying the topic of extracting glucose from plants, trying to convert it into degradable and digestible polymers to replace plastic products. To this end, he stayed on the farm every day, observing the growth of crops and recording experiments.

One day, Jeffrey discovered that there were large numbers of black soldier flies (a saprophytic waterfly family insect) on the farm, commonly known as “phoenix bugs” and also familiar big-headed flies. Seeing the swarm of flies dancing wildly, Jeffrey suddenly had an idea and tried to find useful substances in it. So Jeffrey and his team members captured a bag of big-headed flies and conducted experiments on them.

Jeffrey led the team members to divide the work. One group of people searched for information on the living habits and reproduction status of the big-headed fly. The other group of members conducted anatomy experiments on the big-headed fly and drafted a plan based on the relevant data.

After several months of research, Jeffrey’s team finally found a polymer in the big-headed fly that can be used to make plastic products – chitosan. Researchers found that the larvae of these big-headed flies contain many proteins and other nutritional compounds, but the adult flies have a short lifespan and will die after reproduction. The main ingredient in these dead flies is chitin, a nontoxic, biodegradable sugar-based polymer that makes the shells, or exoskeletons, of insects and crustaceans stronger. The researchers used ethanol rinses, acidic demineralization, alkaline deproteinization and bleach decolorization to isolate proteins from the flies, and then converted the purified proteins into chitosan polymers. This substance is pure and delicate and can be converted into useful bioplastics such as superabsorbent hydrogels. Jeffrey drafted a plan and submitted it to the superior department. A few days later, Jeffrey received a reply and received funding.

After receiving R&D funds, Jeffrey led his team members to start small-scale big-headed fly cultivation. After a period of reproduction, Jeffrey contacted manufacturers to produce hydrogel, and a factory took the order. A few weeks later, a hydrogel made from big-headed flies was born. The hydrogel, which can absorb 47 times its own weight in water within 60 seconds, could be used in farm soil to absorb floodwaters and then slowly release the water during subsequent dry seasons. This hydrogel can biodegrade the molecular components gradually released, and can also be used as nutrients for crops, and the gel waste produced can be used as a food source for big-headed flies. After the big-headed flies mature, they can be extracted from them to make gel. substance. Hydrogels made from big-headed flies can not only be produced and used repeatedly, but can also alleviate the problem of plastic pollution. It is really a good thing that kills two birds with one stone.

In November 2023, Jeffrey Tomblin won the “Most Creative Invention Award” from Texas A&M University in the United States for his research results on making hydrogels from big-headed flies. In an interview with Al-Ahram, Jeffrey Tomblin said with deep feeling: “Participating in environmental protection does not necessarily require investing a lot of manpower and financial resources. Sometimes an inadvertent discovery or a small idea can make a difference. It is possible to solve environmental problems that have troubled people for a long time and make the entire city a better place.”

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