Algae!!!…Green, gooey, slimy, messy, smelly, unpleasant…All these words come to mind when I hear the word “Algae”.
What if I told you algae has the power to revolutionize the world today. Oh yes! There is an “Algae Revolution” and it is quite fascinating.
Just imagine yourself, walking into a coffee shop with your own bag of kelp (an algae) and leaving with your hot coffee in a kelp-cup made onsite. Get ready to be blown away…
From Algae to Plastics
In 2011, after visiting a recycling station in Mumbai, Eric Klarenbeek started investigating the potential to 3-D print objects from unusual materials. He started with mycelium (a glue-like substrate from mushrooms). During the course of Klarenbeek’s work, he 3-D printed chair structures from a combination of mycelium, wood chips and straw. His goal was to use locally available resources to create durable and functional objects.
Later, he partnered with Maartje Dros, another Dutch designer, to develop biodegradable plastics from algae that they now use to 3D print objects. Together, they have researched algae bioplastics in partnership with Wageningen University and Avans Biobased Lab in the Netherlands, among other institutions. Klarenbeek and Dros have established an Algae Lab at the Atelier Luma’s production workshop in Arles, France where their technology is further developed. Today, the duo (Klarenbeek and Dros) run a studio in the Netherlands that focuses on the production and processing of macroalgae, and its possibilities for a local production cycle, from seaweed farming to end product.
After 8 years performing bioplastics research during my PhD at Stanford, I know firsthand the challenges that come with trying to print these plastic types. Most bioplastics today cannot be 3-D printed because they are either not flexible enough, or they melt away during the printing process. This achievement by Klarenbeek and Dros is simply revolutionary.
So What Exactly is Algae?
Before going any further, let’s dive into the world of Algae. Algae is a term used to define a diverse group of organisms that obtain their energy and food from sunlight, carbon dioxide and water. In other words, algae are photosynthetic.
Algae exists in three different forms and can take on different shapes or sizes. First, there are single-celled and microscopic (invisible) algae as big as 2 micrometers (think of the pore size of a surgical mask). Then there are single-celled and macroscopic (visible) – these are much bigger. Algae can also take on a leafy form like seaweeds and kelp. These “leafy” algae have multiple-cells, and grow as long as 60 meters or more.
While algae are mostly found in all kinds of aquatic habitats — either free-floating or sitting at the bottom of saltwater or freshwater — algae can also live in some unexpected places. Algae grows on mud, stones, tree trunks, as well as other plants and animals. In fact, they are so good at forming collaborative symbiotic relationships that you can think of them as omnipresent in nature.
How Are Algae Bioplastics Made?
While the exact process and formulation for the algae plastics made by Klarenbeek and Dros remains a secret, the steps they take to get from algae to 3-D printed plastic can be broken down into 4 “pretty straightforward” stages:
- The Selection & Harvest Process
First they identify the right types of algae and usually harvest them from aquatic habitats like ponds. They have currently used algae such as seaweed and spirulina in their processes.
- The Cultivation Process
Next, Klarenbeek and Dros grow a selection of algae in saltwater to obtain starch and fibermass for further production. Based on my experience working with microorganisms (bacteria to be more specific), this stage of the process is extremely crucial. Cultivating and maintaining organisms could make or break the process flow. However, this does not seem to be the case with algae. Algae grows very fast with a minimum nutrient requirement, and they are much more “low maintenance” compared to bacteria. Klarenbeek and Dros have also experimented using algae as a natural pigment and plasticizer.
- The 3-D Printing Preparation
Once the algae has grown appreciably, the duo (Klarenbeek and Dros) dry the wet biomass and grind it up to obtain a powder. The powdered algae is mixed with another bioplastic (potentially an algae plasticizer) which acts as a binder. This mixture is fed into a machine (called an extruder) that melts the mixture to form a continuous thread (called a filament) which looks like wool ready for knitting.
- The Biopolymer Printing Process
The algae thread is fed into a 3-D printer which the duo uses to build a variety of objects. 3-D printing is simply a process of manufacturing a desired product from a digital image with specific dimensions.
These bioplastics can be altered to suit different applications. And like I mentioned previously, these algae bioplastics by Klarenbeek and Dros are excellent for 3-D printing applications.
Why is Algae Important To The Planet?
Algae generates more than 50 percent of the Earth’s oxygen, making them one of the most important organisms on the planet today. Frankly, earth would not be able to support human existence at its current capacity without the help of these “gooey” organisms. Algae can remove tons of CO2 from the atmosphere, which makes them major players in climate change mitigation. More so, algae grows very quickly. They accumulate high levels of oils, carbohydrates, proteins and vital vitamins making them literally a “super” do-it-all organism.
What Can Algae Plastics Be Used To Make?
Klarenbeek and Dros’ algae products can be used to make every kind of plastic material. From furniture to dishware to detergent containers to plastic bottles. You name it! Ultimately, Klarenbeek and Dros want local restaurants and catering events to use tableware made from their 3-D printed algae plastics.
Fun fact! I recently watched a science-fiction show called The 100. The whole idea in this post-apocalyptic drama series is to demonstrate how humans can survive under devastating conditions. Guess what? The most reliable food source they turned to was Algae. For 6 years on a spaceship, Monty’s Algae farm fed the entire group. Pretty fascinating how even sci-fi creators can see into the future too.
A Decentralized System of Delivery
Eventually, Klarenbeek and Dros desire to build a decentralized network of 3-D printing hubs they plan to call the 3D Bakery. They want people to grow their own raw materials locally and create products that suit their specific needs. Just like the hot coffee in a kelp-cup. How cool is that!
How Ready is This Algae Plastic Technology?
Klarenbeek and Dros have no ambition to become a large centralized organization. However, they envision the 3D Bakery will be fully operational before 2030.
With that said, it is important to highlight the challenges facing the bioplastics industry today. The biggest being the cost of production. Polyethylene (PET) — made from crude oil and used to make all sorts of things like plastic bottles, milk jugs, detergent containers — is the cheapest plastic to produce to date. With the sharp decline in oil prices, the use of fossil-fuels remains the cheapest pathway to plastic production. Large corporations are more interested in scalable, easy to produce processes while current plastic manufacturing infrastructure is still very archaic and unable to adapt to new material inputs. The competition for bioplastic producers is steep. These sustainable alternatives need to evolve at a much faster pace to outcompete what is currently status-quo.
Nonetheless, I am optimistic about Klarenbeek and Dros’ algae plastic technology. It is a major advancement in biodegradable plastic production and should attract a lot of interest from corporations looking to curb plastic usage. As I mentioned in my previous article, plastic pollution is a huge threat to the environment and human-health, and this problem cannot be overlooked.
Now. If you are like me, then at this point you are asking yourself, “Could algae really be that thing that saves us?” Well…The jury is still out.
Until next time!