Georgia company commercializing algae-based 'green' plastics

Published: August 9, 2012 6:00 am ET

Related to this story

Topics Materials, Suppliers, Sustainability, Thermoforming

BOGART, GA. (Aug. 9, 1:15 p.m. ET) — 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.


Comments

Georgia company commercializing algae-based 'green' plastics

Published: August 9, 2012 6:00 am ET

Post Your Comments


Back to story


More stories

Image

Milacron commits $30 million to investment in India

August 20, 2014 5:42 pm ET

MUMBAI — Cincinnati-based Milacron LLC plans to invest $30 million over the next three years in India. The investments will double capacity at...    More

Image

Automakers look under the hood for the next lightweighting opportunities

August 20, 2014 1:06 pm ET

The automotive industry's current favorite target for lightweighting efforts is the powertrain, according to a recent survey.    More

Image

GameDay Challenge expands the competition to the recycling bin

August 20, 2014 10:23 am ET

GameDay Recycling Challenge is returning this year as college football stadiums will compete to see which school produces the least amount of waste...    More

Image

Faerch Plast doubling capacity in UK

August 20, 2014 9:42 am ET

R. Faerch Plast A/S, one of Europe’s leading producers of plastic containers for the food industry, is set to double production...    More

Image

Pactiv selling building products unit to Ireland's Kingspan

August 19, 2014 3:54 pm ET

Irish building material manufacturer Kingspan Group plc is acquiring the insulation business of Lake Forest, Ill.-based Pactiv Building Products for $...    More

Market Reports

Thermoformed Packaging 2014 Market Review & Outlook North America

This in-depth report analyzes economic and market trends, legislative/regulatory activity impacting supply and demand, business opportunities and threats, materials pricing, manufacturing technology, as well as growth strategies being implemented by thermoformed packaging companies.

Learn more

Pipe, Profile & Tubing Extrusion in North America 2014

U.S. demand for extruded plastics is expected to grow by 3 percent in 2014, with PVC remaining the largest segment.

Plastic pipe will post the strongest gains through 2018, continuing to take market share from competing materials in a range of markets.

Our latest market report provides in-depth analysis of current trends and their financial impact on the pipe, profile and tubing extrusion industry in North America.

Learn more

2014 Injection Molding Industry Report

GROWTH, OPPORTUNITY IN SIGHT FOR INJECTION MOLDERS IN 2014

In the wake of the economic turbulence earlier in this decade, molders today find themselves in much better shape. Molders are gaining a competitive advantage by investing in people, equipment and seeking inroads into new markets on a global scale.

Growth in the injection molding industry is going to be driven by low financing costs and a continued move to reshore some business.

Learn more

Upcoming Plastics News Events

September 10, 2014 - September 12, 2014Plastics Caps & Closures 2014

January 14, 2015 - January 14, 2015Plastics in Automotive

February 4, 2015 - February 6, 2015Plastics News Executive Forum 2015

More Events