The idea of using algae for making consumer products is not a new one. Due to their high protein contents and healthy pigment contents, algae are widely used today as a health food supplement. As a food commodity, algae have been used by some of the World’s earliest civilizations in warmer climates throughout Central and South America, Africa, and Asia. However, more recently algae have come into focus not for its potential food impact, but instead for its potential in sustainable business ventures.
As early as the 1950’s algae were researched for natural gas production, and after the 1980’s fuel crisis, algae were targeted for its oil producing potential. Since the 1980s and 1990s a number of companies have been founded around the concept of using algae for fuels, but over the past 20 years a number of limitations have been realized. The most important of these limitations is the requirement to grow only certain oil producing species or strains. Strain selection adds to the cost involved with eliminating wild species contamination risk, and limits the means of algae production that are possible. Furthermore, the production of oil often requires the algae to undergo certain stressors to convert to oil production. Stressing the algae both inhibits growth of the algae thereby limiting production potential and complicates the process for oil generation. Finally, oil or other fuels production from algae is targeted at a specific compound in algae and therefore an extra extraction step is required to get the targeted compound. While this process is advantageous compared to traditional crude oil production, it is very costly and limiting in its scope.
Alternatively, when algae can be used in a non-strain specific way without any extraction processes, the potential market impact is significant. In the case of harvesting algae for its biomass, you can target a number of different sources for harvesting algae including some sources that are not farmed. Since the whole biomass is to be used and strain specificity is not an issue, harvesting operations can be planned in conjunction with environmental clean-up efforts. An algae cultivation process targeted at biomass production might include algae for animal feed, algae for anaerobic digestion, or algae for plastics.
In the case of algae for bio-plastics, it is the high protein content found in the biomass that is attractive. The high protein contents in algae (reaching as high as 65% of the dried biomass in some cases) make them naturally capable of behaving like a polymer after exposure to heat and pressure. Since algae naturally tend towards high protein content when nutrients are abundant and only move towards starch or lipid production when nutrient availability is low, strain specificity is not an issue and extraction is not required. With a much simpler means of production the use of algae for plastics a very economical and sustainable practice.
Additionally, since the waste products of lipid extraction are generally a high protein biomass residue, there also exist co-product strategies which can be used to produce plastics as a byproduct from fuels production. The diversity of sources available for production makes the biomass targeted approach for algae plastics both very compatible with current industrial algae production, and uniquely compatible with wild harvested or low maintenance algae farming methods.