This week in the Bioenergy and Sustainability Summer School, we are exploring applications of algae. Gillian shared about Solazyme’s use of algae-derived oils in personal care products and Erica discussed Qponics’ production of omega-3 oils from algae for human consumption. This dialogue on oil led me to wonder if there are any companies out there utilizing algae oil for plastic production. Knowing that common plastics “require” hydrocarbons found in petroleum and natural gas, in order to phase out fossil fuels, shouldn’t the movement in algae production include not only biofuels but also bio-plastics? A Florida algae company, Algix found a way to make plastic from algae – not from extracting the algae’s oil but from its protein. The high protein content makes algae “naturally capable of behaving like a polymer after exposure to heat and pressure.”
While this company has polished this process for commercial uses, a design student at the Iceland Academy of the Arts used similar principles to create a biodegradable algae-based water bottle. Ari Jónsson’s design is simple, requiring only two raw materials: water and agar, a gelatinous substance made from red algae. Jónsson combines the water and agar, heats the mixture, and pours it into a bottle mold. The water binds and thickens the agar when it quickly cools down, allowing the bottle to retain its shape. When the bottle is emptied post-use, it will take a week to breakdown when left alone and will decompose if added to soil. This can be contrasted with a petroleum-based plastic bottle that takes thousands of years to breakdown.
Given our increasing rate of consumption, “by 2050 oceans are expected to contain more plastics than fish (by weight), and the entire plastics industry will consume 20% of total oil production, and 15% of the annual carbon budget” as stated in a 2016 New Plastics Economy report. Jónsson’s use of a decomposable natural polymer offers a solution to the two-part challenge that we face as we enter further into the “Age of Plastic” and demonstrates sustainable design principles that will be essential to our near future [bio]plastic production.
Can a Bottle Made From Algae End the World's Plastic Addiction?
April 6, 2016
2016 BioEnergy & Sustainability School
Soil and Water Science Department