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First surfboards, then the world: plastic from algae kicks into high gear with new $2 million BETO-funded polyurethane project.


BETO Surfs The New Wave Of Bio-Based Plastic From Algae

First surfboards, then the world: plastic from algae kicks into high gear with new $2 million BETO-funded polyurethane project.

No, not the Beto from Texas, silly! BETO is the US Energy Department’s Bioenergy Technologies Office. Earlier this year BETO dropped a cool $2 million in funding for a cutting edge algae plastic research project aimed at accelerating the sparkling green bioeconomy of the future.

The algae project is far from a one-off, by the way. For all of President* Trump’s blustering about fossil fuels, the US Department of Energy is still pursuing R&D programs that will help shift the economy out of dependence on fossil-based plastics as well as fossil fuels and chemicals.

Why Algae Bioplastic?

BETO tapped a group of 36 advanced bioeconomy projects for a total of $80 million in funding in September, one of which was the $2 million algae-to-plastic project.

The focus on algae is meant to address the looming bioplastic sustainability problem. Conventional land-based bio-product crops face water and land resource issues. Fertilizer and energy use also contribute to the environmental impact.

Growing algae or other bioplastic crops in saltwater isn’t impact-free, but it does provide for a more sustainable use of the planet’s resources.

Bioplastic can also help manage the problem of ocean plastic pollution. Aside from that thing about fossil-based microplastic particles entering the food chain, large bits of floating plastic endangers and kills sea creatures. Plastic that can safely decompose in the environment would help mitigate the damage.

The BETO Algae Plastic Project

The $2 million BETO algae plastic project comes under the wing of the University of California – San Diego, in the school’s Division of Biological Sciences.

The idea is to develop a suite of algae oil production platforms, specifically with an eye toward converting the algae oil into bio-based chemical building blocks. The ultimate aim is to manufacture polyurethane from algae oil.

The catch, of course, is that the bio-chemicals have to be cost competitive with their fossil-based cousins. With that in mind, the project is charting a path toward industrial-scale production.

The UC – San Diego project is also taking a holistic approach that emphasizes the manufacture of products that large numbers of consumers would be interested in buying.

That strategy is based on the research team’s previous work on biodegradable flip-flops and algae-based surfboards.

The flip-flop angle demonstrates the impact that one change in materials can make when applied to a commonplace consumer products. According to UC – San Diego, more than 3 billion flip-flops are produced from petroleum-based polymers every year. Many of those become trash after just a few uses.

Here’s the money quote from UC – San Diego, citing research team member Michael Burkart:

According to Burkart, as a society, we know that we have to change our consumer habits, and this can only happen step by step.

“Our strategy is to go from renewable algae feedstocks all the way to products that people actually want to buy,” explained Burkart. “The surfboards were a big success, and we are excited to see how people like the flip-flops. Our goal is to get to 100 percent renewability and biodegradability. I believe that we can make an impact.”

BETO is not hedging its bets on the project. In addition to the $2 million in direct funding to UC – San Diego, the project draws on resources from the Energy Department’s Agile BioFoundry, which covers Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, as well as the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Plastic From Algae, Tel Aviv University Edition

Another recent example of the algae plastic trend comes from Israel, where a newly published study from Tel Aviv University details how to produce a common polymer from seaweed.

The twist is that the TAU process doesn’t rely on processing the seaweed with chemical or mechanical systems to squeeze oil from algae. Their polymer is the result of a natural digestive process, courtesy of tiny single-celled organisms that live in salty water and feed on seaweed.

According to the researchers, the process involves no toxic byproducts. The natural polymer is biodegradable and decomposes as ordinary organic waste.

For all the details, look up “Macroalgal biomass subcritical hydrolysates for the production of polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) by Haloferax mediterranei” in the journal Bioresource Technology.

The next challenge is to find a combination of seaweed, microorganisms, harvesting methods, and environmental factors that would make the TAU process competitive with bioplastic produced from land-based crops or, for that matter, competitive with fossil plastic.

So far the researchers are zeroing on the Ulva family, which comprises hundreds of varieties (some edible) of algae that grow in marine or brackish water.

Shhh! Don’t Tell Trump!

Trump may have pulled the US out of the Paris Agreement on climate change (and he did!) but that didn’t stop the US Department of Energy from pursuing its sustainability mission. BETO’s bioeconomy activities underscore just how out of touch the Commander-in-Chief is with his own administration.

One especially interesting development occurred last month, when BETO participated in the Advanced Bioeconomy Leadership Conference Global 2018 event in San Francisco. BETO actually co-sponsored the event along with the international bioenergy organization IEA Bioenergy.

The three-day event was bundled 17 different conferences into one package, and BETO hosted one of those conferences under the title Bioeconomy 2018.

Algae cultivation made the cut for one of the nine sessions in the Bioeconomy 2018 conference, in the sustainable feedstocks category. The session was titled “Frontiers of Algae Research and Cultivation.” Here’s the pitch from BETO:

Intentionally cultivated algae grown for the bioeconomy have been catching the headlines of Forbes, featured as a cover story in Nature Biotechnology, lauded in CNN Tech, and filmed in 60 Minutes. The Sustainable Feedstocks track will bring together industry leaders whose innovations contributed to these headlines.

CleanTechnica is reaching out to one of those private sector participants, Global Algae Innovations, for some takeaways from the conference, so stay tuned for that.

Meanwhile, keep an eye out for other Energy Department algae initiatives focusing on ramping up the algae biofuel sector, including both maritime and inland algae farming.

Of particular interest is the starring role of the iconic fossil fuel state of Texas in the emerging algae bioeconomy, so there’s that.

Follow me on Twitter.

*Developing story.

Photo: Algae surfboard by UC – San Diego via US Department of Energy.

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Written By

Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Google+.


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