ORONO, Maine — Pass the butter. And the 9 iron.

People who like their lobster and to hit the links now have a new way to combine the two, even without dining on the fairway. Researchers at the University of Maine say they have developed a way to turn lobster shells into golf balls.

Using ground lobster shell, a natural binding agent, and a golf ball mold purchased on eBay, a UMaine professor and an undergrad student have worked together to come up with a golf ball that flies and feels like the real thing.

According to Bob Bayer, executive director of UMaine’s nonprofit Lobster Institute, the idea came from Carin Orr, a former student of his who now lives in Colorado. Bayer passed the idea on to junior bioengineering major Alex Caddell and engineering professor David Neivandt, who after nine months of trial and error have developed a functional golf ball.

“It drives like a real golf ball, and it sounds like a real golf ball” when hit, Bayer said. “If you look at a cross section, it’s very pink.”

Neivandt said that short of cutting it in half, the ball’s appearance is indistinguishable from other golf balls.

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

And the ball has one advantage over its synthetic predecessor, according to the UMaine researchers. Anyone who wants to hit a few off the porch into the woods or off a boat into the water can do so without feeling pangs of guilt for polluting the environment, they said, because the balls are biodegradable.

Neivandt said there are other biodegradable golf balls on the market but that the ball developed at UMaine is both strong and can break down quickly in the environment. If the ball ends up in the water, he said, it substantially dissolves in about one week — more quickly than other biodegradable balls.

Like other biodegradable versions, the UMaine lobster ball doesn’t fly as far as traditional golf balls, he said. But other biodegradable golf balls can damage wooden drivers when struck and so can be used only with iron clubs, he said. The UMaine ball does not damage drivers, he said, and can be hit safely with both drivers and irons.

Another aspect about the UMaine ball is that its surface starts to crack after a few whacks, or perhaps even after one if hit with a driver. Neivandt said this was done on purpose, to help hasten the ball’s dissolution in water. The ball could be redesigned to last longer, he said, but UMaine researchers think there is a market for balls that do not last as long.

Cruise ships used to allow passengers to hit balls off their decks into the sea, the researchers said, but that stopped after environmental concerns about the practice arose. If someone is going to hit a ball off a cruise ship, or from the shore, there is no need to hit it more than once, they said.

Neivandt said some cruise ships do carry biodegradable balls, but that they are expensive. Some other environmentally friendly balls can cost $1 apiece, but Neivandt said UMaine’s version can be made for less money. The materials for one UMaine lobster ball have a total cost of less than 20 cents, he said.

“We anticipate coming in well under that dollar-a-ball number,” Neivandt said.

Neivandt credited three other people with helping on the project. Paul Ohno, a former Orono High School student who now is a freshman at Princeton University, devoted a lot of time to the project, he said, and fellow UMaine engineering professor Amos Cline helped his colleagues master the molding process. Josh Cline, Amos Cline’s brother, helped design the UMaine and lobster logo printed on the balls, he added.

UMaine is in the early stages of getting the lobster golf ball design patented, he said, and is still working to perfect the design before it decides how to bring it to market. UMaine could spin off a company to manufacture the ball, he said, but the ball could be brought to market more quickly if UMaine licenses the design to an existing manufacturer.

“My hope is that there’s a company out there that sees the potential of this,” Neivandt said.

And the molded lobster shell compound researchers have come up with can be made into more than just golf balls, the professor added. There are several other potential uses, he said, but the only one he identified publicly was using the compound to make biodegradable flower pots. The pots would start out quite strong, he said, but would break down quickly after being placed in the ground and repeatedly watered.

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

Aside from the potential for creating new manufacturing opportunities, Neivandt stressed, a main goal of the project has been to help Maine’s lobster industry. Using cooked lobster shells to make golf balls would reduce the amount of shells that end up in landfills, he said, but it also would boost the value of a lobsterman’s catch by creating a market for something that up until now has been considered trash.

“What we’re trying to do is take that waste stream and create a value-added product from it,” Neivandt said.

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Bill Trotter

A news reporter in coastal Maine for more than 20 years, Bill Trotter writes about how the Atlantic Ocean and the state's iconic coastline help to shape the lives of coastal Maine residents and visitors....