Sustainable alternative may one day replace fossil fuel based products
The Dutch team behind an innovative process for 3D printing bioplastic from algae plans to launch a series of ‘architecture-related’ interior applications.
Eric Klarenbeek and Maartje Dros cultivate algae, then dry, process and blend it to create biopolymers with similar properties to regular plastics. The process was devised as a sustainable alternative to fossil oil-based synthetic plastic production, and they claim it could one day replace it entirely.
The designers are investigating the commercial production of items including tableware, shampoo bottles and undisclosed interior applications, at a research and algae production laboratory, run by the Luma Foundation, in Arles, France. Certification of the first products for commercial use is expected in the second half of 2018.
Klarenbeek tells RIBAJ: ‘From January until the summer we will develop the material further, working alongside several institutes, with support from the Luma Foundation. Our biopolymers are not currently suitable for cladding, due to the high level of durability required for outdoor applications, but we are currently developing "architecture-related applications" for interiors.’
Dros adds: ‘Sugar-based biopolymers are sensitive to UV light and become moist over time [making them less suitable for external applications], but they have already been proven to be suitable for use in interior panels and tiling.’
The use of algae could become a more sustainable alternative to existing techniques for making bioplastics mostly based on the use of corn or sugarcane, which do not grow in sufficiently large amounts in the Netherlands, where there are also no factories to process them.
‘Algae can grow at sea and on land, in vertical installations, so it need not compete with regular food production on land,’ says Dros.
3D printing the products aligns with a philosophy of local production, removing the need to visit remote industrial estates to buy furniture or to ship products from overseas. Ultimately, the team aims to set up a local network of biopolymer 3D printers, called the 3D Bakery. The material can be processed like ordinary plastic, making it suitable for injection moulding, casting, or rotation moulding.
The bioplastic material is formed from a blend of algae species grown separately to produce the biopolymer, starch, plasticizer and pigment. Other materials can be added to boost different properties, but there is always a trade off, says Klarenbeek: ‘Adding sugar cane increases transparency and resistance, which is desirable for a product like a cup to meet food hygiene standards, but increasing durability makes it less easily compostable, reducing the environmental benefit. Products that are made from materials grown 100% locally are highly compostable and sustainable, but less suitable for harder bioplastics.’
Klarenbeek and Dros have created biopolymers from other organic raw materials such as mycelium, potato starch and cocoa bean shells.