April 20, 2011
UMaine researchers have developed a biodegradable golf ball made with lobster shells. It is intended for use on cruise ships. courtesy photo
At a local golf coarse players became teed off during their games because at a hole by the edge of the woods their golf balls would suddenly disappear. Some looked at the caddies with raised eyebrows, others looked at the people they were playing against with questioning glares. Then a caddy decided to solve the mystery by hiding in the woods. To his amazement he watched a fox scamper up to a golf ball, put it in his teeth, and dash into the woods. Mystery solved, and apologizes abounded.

This scenario has been played out across New England. Scientists have hypothesized that the golf balls resemble eggs. They have found teeth marks and some golf balls ripped apart, which could be dangerous, even deadly, for the foxes. Golf balls are a highly toxic mixture that do not biodegrade.

On cruse ship golf practice ranges thousands of golf balls have rocketed off into the ocean in recent years. When the damage the golf balls do to the environment was brought to the ships owners’ attention the practice was forced to stop or to use golf balls that disintegrate in the ocean without damaging the environment.

Now there is a solution that should make foxes, environmentalists, and would be investors, smiling— The lobster shell golf ball. Using ground lobster shell, a natural binding agent, and a golf ball mold a UMaine professor and an undergrad student have worked together to come up with a lobster shell golf ball that flies like an arrow.

Carin Orr, a former UMaine student came up with idea of the biodegradable lobster shell golf ball. Junior bioengineering major Alex Caddell and engineering professor David Neivandt made Orr’s dream a reality.

“The weight’s the same. The size is the same,” said Neivandt. “It flies straight when hit.”

There are other biodegradable golf balls on the market but the ball developed at UMaine is both strong and breaks down quickly in the environment. If the ball ends up in the water it substantially dissolves in about one week, which is far quicker than other biodegradable balls.

The lobster golf ball’s surface starts to crack after a few whacks. Neivandt said this was done on purpose, to help hasten the ball’s dissolution in water. The foxes will have to wait. However the ball could be redesigned to last longer. It wasn’t because UMaine researchers were focused on ways to help a future manufacture tap into the cruse ship market for golf balls.

The UMaine lobster shell ball is also cheaper to manufacture. Many environmentally friendly balls can cost $1 apiece. The materials for one UMaine lobster ball cost less than 20 cents and could be sold for less than a $1.

UMaine is getting the lobster golf ball design patented and is still working to perfect the design. The ball could be brought to market if UMaine licenses the design to an existing manufacturer or a start up company could work with the university.

A main goal of the project has been to help Maine’s lobster industry. Using cooked lobster shells to make golf balls creates a market for something that up until now has been mainly considered trash.

The molded lobster shell compound researchers invented can be made into more than just golf balls. Neivandt would like to eventually use the compound to make biodegradable flowerpots. The pots would start out as strong as a lobster’s back but would break down rapidly after being placed in the ground and watered.

“It actually would add nutrient value to the soil,” said Neivandt.