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Reducing water use with seafood waste

At a time when restricting water use is important and maintaining plants at home difficult, a material developed from seafood waste has been found to keep plants moist with just 30% of the normal requirement.

A team of researchers at Indian Institute of Technology-Madras has used chitin, a glucose-based natural polymer extracted from shells of crustaceans, to make a material that absorbs water like a diaper. 'Neerdhan', when used in soil, acts as an agent slowly releasing water and will, hence, reduce the number of days plants need watering saving almost 70% of the requirement, researchers say.

While a tinge of urea can make it double as biodegradable fertilizer, Neerdhan's ability to absorb water quickly and release it slowly means it can also be used as a floor mop or an agent for curing concrete structures at construction sites.

Prof Dhamodharan of IIT-M's department of chemistry said it can be made with a little treatment. Its water absorbing capacity is enhanced with use of citric acid and urea. "One kg of the material can absorb 600-800 litres of water," he said

Chitin is heated to 60 degrees C with water and alkaline and the resulting 'chitosan' powder mixed with citric acid and urea. "We break the crystalline structure of the powder and still retain it by keeping it disarrayed to enhance water absorbing capacity," he said.

Hortibiz Chitin is extracted from the shells of crustaceans like crabs and shrimps by using pineapple residue. Just 5g of Neerdhan in 1 kg of soil would require water only once in three days. "When a potted plant is watered, some water runs down. Neerdhan in the soil will absorb that water too and will slowly release it," he said. "We are yet to study the rate of absorption and release." Minerals like magnesium, calcium and copper can also be added to the material to improve soil fertility. "Since, the entire process of making the material is green, it degrades in the soil within 2-3 months after which the powder has to be added again to the soil," he said. The material can also be used in large agricultural fields.

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