Georgia Company Commercializing Algae-based 'Green' Plastics
by: Jessica Holbrook
Algix LLC is using algae to make green plastics. Literally.
The company, based in Bogart, focuses on developing and commercializing the cultivation of aquatic biomass for use as a bioresin feedstock, and on developing the bioplastics for use in industrial, retail and commercial applications.
Ryan Hunt and Michael Van Drunen founded the start-up in 2010, and it’s since garnered interest with big industry players.
Hunt, who is also director of research and development the company, said his infatuation with algae began at the University of Georgia. As a graduate student, he was involved with a research project that looked at algae as a way to remove phosphorous and other chemicals from wastewater – a byproduct of the numerous carpet mills and dairies in the northwest part of the state.
While they were successful in cultivating algae that could scrub water, their plan to use the resulting material to produce biofuel was less so; the group ended up with pounds of algae and a “very tiny amount” of oil, Hunt said.
They tossed around other ways to use the high-protein biomass, like making poultry or animal feed, before a professor suggested that the algae could be made into plastic. A week later, he had produced a black, crude, brittle plastic, comparable to polystyrene, with high modulation and plenty of potential, Hunt said.
Algae cultivated in wastewater treatment applications grow in nitrogen-rich environments, resulting in a high-protein material. Proteins are polymer chains of amino acids that, in their native state, are piled on top of each other and bound together by hydrogen; when heat is applied, the protein basically un-forms and unravels, he said.
Using compression molding in the right conditions, pure algae can be made into plastic, but it lacks the necessary performance specifications for the majority of applications.
To fix that, Algix blends the aquatic biomass with a base resin – the company has had success with a variety of copolymers and base resins, like polyethylene, polypropylene, EVA, polyactic acid and polyhydroxyalkanoate, to name a few, Hunt said.
Both the type of base resin and the type of biomass determine the plastics characteristics -- high-protein algae acts more like a thermoplastic, while using lower-protein aquatic plants, like duckweed, results in a stronger and stiffer plastic, he added.
Algix’s plastics can contain up to 70 percent aquatic biomass, but for most purposes, the company uses a 50/50 blend.
The material can be used for injection molding, compression molding, and thermoforming.
The company is experimenting with different applications and processes, but there are still some bugs to work out. The plastic is opaque -- it ranges in color from black to dark green -- and has a slight odor.
“The duckweed smells like grass, the algae smells like fish food,” Hunt joked, adding that Algix is working with moisture scavenging and other technology to eliminate the odor.
The plastic will probably never be clear, however, in part because Algix uses raw feedstock that has not been pre-treated, he added. “One of the advantages of our process is that we’re not synthesizing, we’re not breaking it down.”
Algix is currently pursuing commercial applications that can accommodate the material’s unique qualities, like using the plastic as mulch films. The algae plastic would eventually biodegrade and become plant food, so farmers wouldn’t need to spend time rolling up the sheets, Hunt said.
The company has also had interest from flooring and carpet companies, the same companies providing the nutrient-rich wastewater that algae is grown in. A major retailer asked Algix to develop packaging, things such as paint cans and lawn and garden containers, that would help meet sustainability requirements.
“We’re focusing on the lower hanging fruit first. We’ve got to start on those and get into the market, get in the door … then we can start refining it,” Hunt said.
Algix has a partnership with Kimberly-Clark Corp. that gives it a worldwide exclusive license to the technology used in making algae plastic. That Kimberly-Clark patented that technology a few months before Algix went to file its patents, Hunt said.
Algix also continues to team-up with UGA for research and development.
The company has also gained other industry allies. Dordan Manufacturing Co. Inc. will display samples of thermoformed algae plastic at the upcoming Pack Expo 2012, set for Oct. 28-31 in Chicago.
The plastic will be part of Dordan’s annual bioresin Show N Tell display, which features samples, specifications and prices for a variety of materials, said Chandler Slavin, sustainability coordinator and marketing director.
Dordan is an objective player in the bioresin game, Slavin said. The company started the display in 2010 to give people a way to compare bioresins, including the material’s cost, easily.
“[Bioresins] are super sexy but not always economical,” she said.
Algix approached Dordan about appearing in display after last year’s Pack Expo. Algix had not yet experimented with thermoforming the algae plastic, but sent sheets of the material to Dordan anyway. The sheets were thin, textured and smelled the like the ocean, but they could be formed, Slavin said.
The plastic has an “earthy, funky feel” that could appeal to certain demographics, she said.
Algix has also been a topic on Dordan’s “Recycling in America” blog, recyclablepackaging.wordpress.com, including a Q&A post with Hunt about the algae plastic.
Dordan, based in Woodstock, Ill., thermoforms packaging for consumer products, and posted sales of $20 million in 2011.
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