Can plastic be made from algae?
Algae are an interesting natural resource because they proliferate quickly. They are not impinging on food production. And they need nothing but sunlight and a bit of waste water to grow on. Scientists working for theSPLASH research project, funded by the EU, are now addressing the challenge of making high-quality, affordable plastics from algae. They need to demonstrate that this new type of bioplastic —namely used to produce polyesters and polyolefins— can be of the same quality as traditional plastic. And they need to show whether it can be produced in an economically viable way.
"We need a new species of algae which not only produces the right kind of hydrocarbons and sugars, but also does it fast,” explains says Maria Barbosa, SPLASH’s scientific coordinator and a researcher at Wageningen UR Food & Biobased Research unit, in the Netherlands. She believes that genetic engineering can provide the solution to this problem. “Believe it or not, that’s the easy part,” she adds. But then “we need a way to ‘milk’ the new algae, to take the desired components from the broth without killing it,” she points out. However, this is the challenge that remains to be addressed.