Polymers + Algae = Plastics

Former graduate students from the University of Georgia have developed a way to make plastics out of algae that have industrial, retail, and commercial Algaeapplications.

Ryan Hunt became infatuated with algae while he was working on a research project at the school that aimed to use algae to remove phosphorous and other chemicals from wastewater. At a professor’s suggestion, Hunt began searching for ways to turn algae into plastic. Soon, he had produced a crude, brittle plastic.

Now, he is one of the founders of a company called Algix, which is blending different kinds of algae with a variety of copolymers and base resins to product plastics with different characteristics. Some of the ingredients are polyethylene, polypropylene, EVA, polyactic acid, and polyhydroxyalkanoate. For example, high-protein algae can product products like thermoplastic, while lower-protein aquatic plants, like duckweed, produce a stiffer and stronger plastic, reports Plastics News.

The company’s plastics can contain up to 70% aquatic biomass, but most of the time it uses a 50/50 blend. The products can be used for injection molding, compression molding, and thermoforming.

Algix is experimenting with different applications and processes, but there are some problems to work out. For example, the plastic is opaque and it ranges in color from black to dark green. Moreover, it has a slight odor.

“The duckweed smells like grass, the algae smells like fish food,” Hunt jokes. He adds that Algix is working with moisture scavenging and other technology to eliminate the odor.

While the company could eventually eliminate the odor, its products may never be clear because it uses raw feedstock that has not been pretreated. “One of the advantages of our process is that we’re not synthesizing, we’re not breaking it down,” Hunt says.

Algix is pursuing commercial applications that would allow it to take advantage of its materials’ unique qualities. For example, the plastic will eventually biodegrade so it can be used as mulch and become plant food. Also, the plastic has an “earthy, funky feel,” which can appeal to certain demographics, says Chandler Slavin, the company’s sustainability coordinator and marketing director.

Flooring and carpet companies have expressed interest in the company’s products. A major retailer has asked the company to develop packaging for paint, and lawn and garden products, which would help meet sustainability requirements, Hunt says.

Source: “Georgia company commercializing algae-based ‘green’ plastics,” Plastics News, 8/9/12

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