A/D/O by MINI | Materials: Algae

Journal

Product Design

Materials: Algae

We wade through the benefits of algae: the green CO2 absorber suggested as a small-scale plastic alternative.

The slimy and slick substance found in lakes and ponds, algae floats like glowing green hair coating the water. Algae takes many other forms, including seaweed, and can be the result of an abundance of nutrients, or eutrophication, developed from years of built-up decaying matter. More often, algae’s rapid proliferation is associated with the runoff fertilizers, or pollutants, from agriculture.

While it absorbs carbon dioxide (CO2) during the day, it can begin to suck oxygen from the water as it decomposes, creating anoxic, oxygen-poor conditions that kill off fish and other plants. Left unchecked, algae can take over a body of water. However, due to its high nutrient level, CO2 absorption and ability to be turned into a bioplastic, designers are embracing algae and transforming it into a resource.

Algae grows in water and absorbs CO2. Photo by Antoine Raab, courtesy Luma
Studio Klarenbeek & Dros is using algae to form bioplastic. Photo by Antoine Raab, courtesy Luma

Turning algae from slippery strands into a rigid bioplastic is an abstract concept that differs for each type of algae. In the case of red algae, a polysaccharide called agar can be extracted from the plant matter through a sequence of heating, filtering and dehydrating. Agar is the polymer that gives the material strength or firmness and can be used as a gelatin substitute in cooking or mixed with glycerin, a plasticizer, to create a flexible plastic-like material. Similar to petroleum-based plastic, this mixture can be colored and poured into molds or sheets to dry. Other recipes combine algae with another biopolymer, but as these materials are still in development, designers are generally keeping the details confidential or vague.

Studio Klarenbeek & Dros use the plastic to print vessels. Photo by Antoine Raab, courtesy Luma
The project has received the New Material Award. Photo by Antoine Raab, courtesy Luma

If you have seen any object made of algae, it is probably the luminous translucent 3D-printed vessels by Studio Klarenbeek & Dros. Self described as “Designers of the Unusual” in a quest to find an alternative to fossil fuel and oil-based synthetics, the studio has made bioplastics from food-waste streams including cacao and potato. Now in their lab at Atelier Luma, the team grows algae to use as both a filler and a pigment for a biopolymer that can be used in conventional 3D printers.

In delicate greens, pinks and yellows, the soft curves of their vessels have captivated the imaginations of those looking for materials to replace plastic, and received accolades including the New Material Award. This acclaim is a testament to the growing desire to replace plastic, but as with most bioplastics, scalability is the issue. The product is simple, functional, and even an aesthetic improvement compared to conventional materials, but until a manufacturing infrastructure is developed, these objects won't easily extend to the mainstream.

Margarita Talep extracts agar from algae to create her own biopolymer

Designer Margarita Talep has also been grappling with the issue of scalability as she constructs lustrous packaging out of agar extracted from red algae. Scaling “this type of alternative to plastic should be accompanied by a change of mentality in people about the use of the materials we use daily,” Talep said. “The most important idea is not to excessively produce this material as we did plastic, but to use it consciously and not abuse it.” Her project desintegra.me – translated to “disintegrate me” – uses the pigments of plants such as blueberries to create a material that closely resembles packaging. From cookies to nuts and candies, she has experimented with a method of creating packaging that very closely resembles the most common uses of plastic.

While Talep’s work proves how the convenience industry could incorporate less harmful materials, she is not advocating for its proliferation. Her process remains intimate and handmade, and like many working with algae, still experimental. “The most important thing is never to rush any process in experimentation and let the material ‘talk’,” which she admitted “can sometimes be very frustrating.”

Samuel Tomatis used algae to create the smooth shell of this chair. Photos by Matthieu Barani

In the spirit of experimentation and discovery, designer Samuel Tomatis has created a wide range of objects using algae. On the beaches of his home in Brittany algae was proliferating, destroying the pre-existing ecosystem, but it became his muse and raw material. His practice shows the range of textures, colors and qualities that algae is capable of demonstrating. In some cases, Tomatis grinds it up to create a smooth surface of a chair. In others the strands of algae are still visible in the rough grooves of a bowl. This iterative process showcases the material and maintains a link to its origins through visual cues. Unlike most of the other projects using algae, it is not trying to look like something it is not, it is clearly and confidently itself.

Tomatis used a different technique to form these rough-edged bowls from algae

Unlike the artisan practices of Tomatis and Talep, companies such as Ecoalf, have focussed on scaling the material up. Predicated on creating consumer products that address or alleviate environmental issues, its Ocean Waste footwear collection features a material woven from plastic bottles taken out of the Mediterranean Sea and soles made from algae.

As part of its marketing, the company outlines how using algae helps remediate water bodies and ecosystems, by cleaning out the green sludge to make way for other plants and animals. The intentions echo others using the material, but looking at the shoe, there is nothing that would signify its source, or how algae became white foam.

Hyunseok An's Coral project turns algae into a food source that can be grown at home

Designer Hyunseok An has created a system that demystifies the process of growing algae by “welcoming it into the home”. An was looking for ways to reconnect urban dwellers to natural ecosystems, and algae has the benefit of processing CO2 as well as being a nutrient-rich food source. As An sees it, his project Coral allows for the harvesting of algae at home, in the same way that one might have a pot of basil. An mentioned how the food, more commonly known as spirulina, was declared it to be “the best food of the future” by the UN World Food Conference as early as 1974.

Innovation studio Space 10 made a similar call for algae harvesting in its project Algae Dome, and developed a Future Food Today cookbook that includes algae-based recipes. Not extremely delicious on its own, algae turns other foods a vibrant green color, so the challenge is how to make it more appetizing.

Known as spirulina, the algae-based supplement is touted as a "food of the future"

While algae has seen a surge of recognition in the past few years, the plant group has been perched on the horizon as a material with potential for some time. Almost a decade ago, trans-disciplinary art and design studio Burton Nitta contemplated a future where humans and algae would form a symbiotic relationship. In their project Algaeculture, the studio responded to our overpopulated world and stressed agricultural systems by working with scientists to develop masks. These masks allow algae to be fed by C02, and in turn act as a food source for the wearer.

Burton Nitta extended this idea to Algae Opera – a project in which a song was composed for an opera singer so she would have maximum exhales, producing C02 to fuel an algae mask worn as she sang. This dreamy piece even included algae-based snacks for the viewers. “As humans face an uncertain future and are asked to adapt to changing environments, algae seems a perfect companion for us in this change,” Burton Nitta told The Journal.

Burton Nitta created this mask for the Algaeculture project (2010). All rights reserved

Whether as an ingredient or a material, algae is proving valuable to designers. If they can work with the communities and ecosystems plagued by its overgrowth, there is potential to create a system of exchange that can be modeled and expanded. While algae-based materials will eventually be digested or decompose, it is important to only produce as much as needed.

One potential future for algae is a scaling of the industry to mimic petroleum-based plastics, which threatens to pose a new set of energy costs that small-scale production is able to keep low. Based on the current processes used by designers working with the material, what seems more likely is that algae becomes increasingly popular for a nimble quality that sets it apart.

Text by Lily Saporta Tagiuri.