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Lobster-shell golf balls may revive cruise ship pastime

A lobster is posed next to a golf ball made from ground lobster shells in Orono, Maine. A University of Maine engineering professor and his students have patented the process used create the biodegradable golf balls. (AP Photo) A lobster is posed next to a golf ball made from ground lobster shells in Orono, Maine. A University of Maine engineering professor and his students have patented the process used create the biodegradable golf balls.
By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / April 25, 2011

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University of Maine researchers want to drive the state’s lobsters back to sea — with a 3-iron.

An engineer, a scientist, a student, and an alumna have teamed up to develop a biodegradable golf ball from crushed lobster shells that could be used on cruise ships.

Inexpensive to make, the ball is designed to sink and degrade within weeks, depending on the ocean’s depth and temperature. The balls would degrade in a similar time frame in fresh water — and break down if lost in the woods, although that would take longer.

For years, a favorite cruise ship pastime was hitting golf balls from the decks into the sea, but the practice ended after an international treaty banned the dumping of plastic, including golf balls, at sea in about 1988. The biodegradable lobster balls could revive the activity, the researchers say.

“The whole idea is that we want to use every bit of a lobster we can,’’ said Robert Bayer, executive director of the Lobster Institute, a research group based at the University of Maine.

Most lobster shells in the lobster canning industry end up in landfills.

The idea for a golf ball made from lobster shells was first proposed by Carin Poeschel Orr, who earned a master’s degree in marine bioresources at UMaine. She was a graduate student of Bayer’s 10 years ago, and the two stayed in touch. Last summer, she mentioned her idea to him.

Intrigued, Bayer began making a prototype in his basement.

“I thought it was a great idea, but the first one came out terrible,’’ Bayer said.

Armed with his lobster-shell ball — actually half a ball made by molding a mixture of shell fragments mixed with Elmer’s glue — he turned to a biological and chemical engineering associate professor, David Neivandt, who was equally intrigued.

Neivandt recruited an undergraduate bioengineering student, Alex Caddell of Winterport, Maine — an avid golfer — and the group set out design a golf ball that would do everything a traditional golf ball would do.

“That means it had to perform like a golf ball, fly like a golf ball, and sound like one when you hit it,’’ Neivandt said. Golf ball cores also need to compress and rebound, providing another challenge. “Plus, in our case, it also had to biodegrade,’’ he said.

Neivandt came up with what he will describe only as essentially an “off-the-shelf’’ material to coat the crushed lobster shells. Because the university has filed a provisional patent for the lobster-shell mixture, he declined to reveal its ingredients.

The group is not yet producing the golf balls commercially, but Caddell said in a news release that their “flight properties are amazing.’’

“It doesn’t fly quite as far as a regular golf ball, but we’re actually getting a similar distance to other biodegradable golf balls,’’ he said.

Not only are these the first biodegradable golf balls made from lobster waste, but the team says they will be less expensive than other biodegradable balls, which usually cost just under $1 each.

The lobster golf balls are expected to retail for significantly less than $1, with the raw materials for each costing as little as 19 cents.

But golf balls are not all the team has up their sleeve.

“Next on our list is biodegradable flower pots,’’ Bayer said.

Beth Daley can be reached a bdaley@globe.com.