This summer, many beachgoers around the US endured an increasingly icky phenomenon: waters teeming with jellyfish. In April, thousands of jellyfish invaded Hallandale Beach in South Florida, Miami, while officials continued to discourage visits to certain beaches in the US with expected jellyfish invasions.
Global jellyfish populations have been steadily growing in recent years, driven by rising ocean temperatures, pollution and overfishing. In her book, Stung!: On Jellyfish Blooms and the Future of the Oceans, scientist Lisa-Ann Gershwin argues the increased acidity in oceans have made it ideal for jellyfish to thrive. Aside from being a menace to beachgoers, jellyfish can also harm underwater infrastructure, clogging the cooling systems of nuclear power plants. According to the National Science Foundation, colonies of jellyfish in the Gulf of Mexico can be 100 miles long, with more jellyfish than water at their densest.
Howard Carter, a bite prevention expert who developed a product to relieve jellyfish stings, believes the trend will continue: “More and more jellyfish will end up on the popular beaches like in South Florida, especially with the strong winds and currents in the US. There are already extremely poisonous species like the box jellyfish in the Caribbean Sea – which is not too far.”
Now, one Israeli startup thinks it’s found a solution to tackling these swelling populations – biodegradable diapers and female hygiene products made out of jellyfish.
Cine’al was conceived by Shachar Richter, a material scientist at the University of Tel Aviv, who began studying jellyfish a few years ago. As a material scientist, Richter looked closely at the flesh of jellyfish, and found that it could absorb liquid in large quantities. He and his colleagues then developed a super-absorbent material they named “hydromash”, which Richter says can absorb a high volume of blood and water.
In order to produce hydromash, the company first breaks down the jellyfish flesh and then adds antibacterial nanoparticles to the mix, which remove the sting. The process converts the jellyfish into a strong, flexible but fully biodegradable material. Although jellyfish stings are painful and sometimes fatal, jellyfish are composed of 90% water. Richter and his colleagues realized jellyfish flesh could actually be used in medical bandages and sponges.
Cine’al is now developing infant and adult diapers, as well as feminine hygiene products made out of hydromash. The company expects the products to hit the market in the next 18 months. The global diaper market size was estimated at $52bn in 2015, and set to reach $76.5bn by 2022. There are 40.37m diapers used daily in the US, most of which end up in landfills. About 43 million women in the US use tampons; on average, a woman uses 11,000 tampons in her lifetime. A typical disposable diaper or tampon can take hundreds of years to break down. According to Richter, a product made of hydromash takes less than 30 days to biodegrade.
Cine’al isn’t unique when it comes to drawing inspiration from nature to create new materials. Biomason, a North Carolina startup, makes eco-friendly bricks grown with sand and bacteria. Coeio has invented a “burial suit” made out of mushrooms, which is intended to neutralize toxins found in a decomposing body and transfer nutrients to plant life after burial. Agroplast, a Danish startup, uses pig urine to produce bioplastics which could be turned into disposable plates and utensils.
“If these products go mainstream, they can revolutionize the market and make an environmentally noticeable difference,” says Nir Davison, Richter’s colleague at Cine’al also involved in the development of the material.
“Jellyfish are elegant, beautiful and intriguing creatures. If they’re studied properly, there are many more ways [they] can contribute to our lives,” Richter says.
This article originally appeared in The Guardian.