Turning micro algae into "green" plastic

A new research project aims to turn micro algae into recycled plastic and to develop super algae to bind CO2.

Photo of micro algae, used to illustrate an article about a new research project.
BIG MICRO: Tiny micro algae may become a big resource and could end up revolutionising the plastics industry.
Wikimedia Commons

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Chemistry professor Vidar R. Jensen had never worked with algae earlier. Now he is leading a multidisciplinary and radical project where tiny algae can contribute to major climate gains.

“I have been looking for a green project, and I heard of The Research Council of Norway’s Idea Lab initiative, applied and was awarded a place”, says Jensen, who works at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Bergen (UiB).  

Of 155 applicants, he is one of 27 researchers who has been chosen by The Idea Lab initiative.


Locked in the lab

For five days he was locked in the Idea Lab together with researchers from a number of fields. Outside, the winter weather was crisp, but the researchers were obliged to enjoy the snow and the winter sunshine through the windows, and spend their time pooling their thoughts to devise eminent research ideas on the theme for the first Norwegian lab initiative: A zero emission society.

“Participating was exciting. Particularly the discussions with researchers from very different backgrounds proved interesting. It was surprising just how many possible approaches to common problems that surfaced when we had managed to discuss a while and get to know each other better” says Jensen.

The Idea Lab initiative is based on a British model and the intention is to create interfaces between biotechnology, nanotechnology and ICT. Jensen, with his expertise in nano modelling and theoretical chemistry met experts in the fields of microalgae, genetics and physics.  


Theoretical chemistry meets genetics

When he was let out of the Idea Lab it was with the new research collaboration microAlgae in his briefcase. This was one of the four Idea Lab projects that were considered to be so good that they later received millions of kroner in funding from the Research Council of Norway. The Idea Lab was led by people from British Know Innovation, supported by six international mentors. These decided which of the projects that were to be recommended for funding. The two-tier microAlgae project was one of the successful candidates.

“We will be looking for algae that produce as much lipids as possible. This can represent a renewable source of raw material for a range of products that are currently based on coal, oil and natural gas. The other part of the project is to find algae that are particularly well suited to capturing CO2. These are algae that grow rapidly until they become so heavy that they fall to the seabed and become sediment”, says Vidar R. Jensen.

The researchers will study whether these properties can be further developed into a future tool for limiting global warming.

“The project is very multidisciplinary. We are talking about physics, optics, material science, biotechnology, chemistry, information technology and social sciences. This means that we can put together technology in completely new ways. We can, for example, use visualisation technology to develop catalysts faster. The catalyst will be used to convert the fatty acids in the lipids into the raw material for anything from polymers to soaps”, says the chemist.  

The hunt for the right algae

Before they established microAlgae, the Idea Lab team checked with their international contacts to see if there were others working on the same theme, but nobody had heard anything like that.

Jensen has also received microAlgae funding from the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at UiB for a four-year fellowship position. In addition he has received funding from the Research Council of Norway to establish a postdoc post for a period of two years.

“Without the support of the faculty, the project would have stranded. The fellow will carry out absolutely essential work by predicting, with the help of calculations, the catalysts that are good at converting lipids from algae into useful products. This involves developing chemical reactions. The post doctor will work on producing the catalysts in the laboratory. 

Other colleagues in the team will be looking for the right types of algae.

“They have an algae shortlist of existing species, and we are seeking to find which of these are best suited for further development. This is because the amount and type of chemical bonds vary a great deal from species to species”, Jensen explains.


Camera case of algae

The researchers will identify species that produce the most valuable fatty acids and these fatty acids will then be chemically converted into more usable and valuable compounds, called alpha olefins.

“We will do this through newly developed catalysts linked to nano tubes and other carbon nano materials. Alpha olefins are the most important intermediate in petro chemistry. Polyethylene, the material that plastic carrier bags are made of, is one type of olefin, the very smallest, ethane, hence the name polyethylene”, Jensen explains.

Almost all of the plastic that surrounds us, in camera cases, plastic bags, telephones, bottles, stems from resources such as oil and natural gas.

“As consumers we are hardly aware of this on a day-to-day basis, and we have only just begun to replace this plastic with renewable plastic. This can be done by creating alpha olefins from fatty acids, which in turn come from micro algae. That way, we can latch on to the existing petro chemistry that bases itself on alpha olefins”, says Jensen.

This shows that the chemical processes that exploit alpha olefins as so-called food or raw material can, in a wide range of cases, replace the fossil fuel with a chemically identical food that stems from renewable resources. In other words, one avoids the need to make major changes in all the gigantic factory plants where alpha olefins are part of the raw materials.

That is why alpha olefins are more useful and more valuable than the point of departure, namely lipids and fatty acids from micro algae.


Micro algae: The Ocean’s rainforest

The fact that micro algae are extremely important for the Earth’s climate also makes them an especially exciting research object for carbon capture and storage (also known as CCS). On an annual basis, the anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions on Earth amount to about 40 billion tons. Algae take up 25% of the world’s CO2 emissions, i.e. 10 gigatons. Micro algae account for 97% of the total carbon catch by all algae and they are, therefore, by far the largest carbon harvesters in the sea. The other half of the carbon catch is done by forests and plants on the surface of the earth.

“Since the forests are under pressure as a result of the increase in population and the need to cultivate foodstuffs, we have to look at the possibilities of algae becoming even bigger carbon harvesters”.  

“However, the algae in the oceans do not have optimal conditions. In this part of the project we will investigate how more CO2 can be captured in the shortest possible time and sent to the sediment on the seabed”, says Jensen.

The researchers want to look at advanced breeding of different algae types, to find algae with optimal properties. Probably, we will also find ways to fertilise areas where there are algae, either in lakes or in the sea. Even if the algae research in this project will only take place on a laboratory scale, the project will examine the ethical, legal and social aspects of setting out and cultivating algae on a larger scale. To use a sea area or a fjord for this purpose would be controversial.

“The cultivation of large quantities of algae will have a major impact on nature. Brown beaches will perhaps be the most visible consequence. But such a major experiment might also have some negative consequences on the environment that we have no knowledge of in advance. This is clearly problematic, and such an experiment must be scrutinised carefully. We have been in discussion with major players, from the Norwegian Ministry of Climate and Environment to the Bellona Foundation. No conclusion has yet been reached as to what will happen next with carbon capture and storage using micro algae”, says Vidar R.Jensen.