Left to right: Ryan Hunt, co-founder and director of R&D, Algix; Eben Bayer, CEO Ecovative Design; and Daniel DeBrouse, founder and CEO, Tamarisk Technologies. Illustrations by Peter Arkle.
Algix Bioplastics and Resins
Bogart, Ga.–based Algix creates bioplastics from aquatic biomass—namely, the blue-green algae spirulina and the miniscule duckweed—grown in a controlled environment containing nutrient-rich wastewater from nearby agricultural and industrial facilities. If released into a water body, the wastewater would induce harmful algal blooms, Algix co-founder and director of research and development Ryan Hunt says. Algix harvests, dries, and mills the algal biomass into tiny particles, and then combines it with plastic polymers. The resulting bioplastics and resins can be used to make foam boards, insulation, plastic sheeting, and wire coatings.
The algae reduces the amount of petrochemicals in conventional plastic by up to 70 percent. “Algae is one of the lowest-cost options to treat that wastewater,” Hunt says. Growing algae also consumes carbon dioxide, which is by no means in scarcity. The finished product currently has a slight odor—like a fish tank in need of cleaning. Algix is working on eliminating the scent.
Ecovative Mushroom Materials
Agricultural waste offers another promising material: mycelium. Eben Bayer, CEO of Ecovative Design in Green Island, N.Y., says that the stringy fungal material has the same flexural strength as polystyrene, but far superior compressive strength. In fact, pound for pound, mycelium is stronger than concrete. “We combine mycelium cells with low-grade agricultural waste [such as plant stalks] … and put it in a mold, where the cells digest corn stalk and form more mass,” he says. The undigested corn serves as scaffolding for “living plastic,” a white, porous, and hard substance that’s nontoxic, fireproof, and mold and water resistant.
Providing an insulation value of R-3 or R-4 per inch of thickness, mycelium can be used in applications such as insulation, structural insulating panels, acoustical tiles, and building blocks. Biocomposite mycelium sheets, which are virtually VOC free, can even replace conventional particleboard. Ecovative plans to launch a building product line commercially this year.
Tamarisk Technologies Alginix
Based in Las Vegas, Tamarisk Technologies CEO and molecular microbiologist Daniel DeBrouse was researching insulin when he discovered an unusual property of alginate, a biopolymer that has long been used in dental molds and thickening agents. “I could not hit a melting point on this stuff in the lab,” he says. Combined with proprietary natural constituents, the lightweight polymer—which comes from brown seaweed, or kelp—has a compressive strength “many times that of the strongest concrete” at full cure. “With this material, we can literally pour a slab … treat it with a mist of ionized water, and within 30 minutes you can walk on [it],” DeBrouse says. Tamarisk is developing a second formulation that gives Alginix the tensile strength of steel.
Found in abundance in the ocean, brown seaweed grows rapidly and can overwhelm aquatic ecosystems. “There’s never a concern about running out,” DeBrouse says. Due to hit the commercial market in Canada this month, Alginix is also nontoxic, he says. “You could eat it if you wanted to.”