Harmful algal blooms offer a free, abundant, and under-exploited biomaterial feedstock. US company Algix is leading the way in turning them into high-value, high-performance materials.
Algae can be perilous. In Southeast India, floating blooms are suffocating corals and fish. Since the early nineties, Lake Erie in North America has suffered yearly outbreaks that have rocked the local economy. At the peak of the 2021 bloom season, cyanobacteria covered 530 square miles of its surface. Algal blooms are a natural phenomenon but industrial and agricultural pollution can contribute to their frequency and severity. When excess fertiliser washes into lakes and rivers, aquatic microorganisms multiply on the nutrient overload.
This aquatic ooze has massive health and economic costs. Some blooming species are toxic, poisoning animals that ingest them or releasing toxins into the air. Yet even harmless microalgae choke off underwater oxygen and light in large enough numbers. This slow death of habitats through nutrient pollution is called eutrophication. Conservative estimates for annual loss from algal blooms range from $1 billion losses for European coastal waters to $2.4 billion for lakes and streams in the United States.
Mississippi-Based company Algix has stepped into the fray, turning a biohazard into biomaterial. Co-founded by Mike Van Drunen and Ryan Hunt in 2010, Algix has become unique among algal biomass companies by using wild algal blooms. They source excess algal sludge from natural habitats all over the world, processing it into algae-based resin pellets trademarked under the brand name BLOOM. Manufacturers can blend BLOOM pellets with conventional petrochemical-based materials.
Ryan Hunt encountered the plastic potential of algae as a graduate student at the University of Georgia. Under heat and pressure, blue-green algae turn into polymers that have similar properties to their petrochemical counterparts. Unlike other feedstock like sugarcane and corn, algae do not compete with food agriculture for space and energy inputs. This especially applies to algae drawn from toxic blooms. Algae also have a much faster growth rate than land plants. This rapid growth is the bane of communities afflicted by the blooms, but it is a boon for Algix. It ensures an abundant and free supply of material that reduces overall costs for the business.
Yet there are drawbacks to using wild stock. “The composition of algae blooms can vary, and the ability to harvest and process them into value is very challenging. The composition of algae blooms does not generally contain oils for biofuels, nor are they pure enough to be used for food or supplements.” Algix had initially wanted to break into the lucrative algal biofuels industry but decided to capitalise on the properties of wild blooms instead – their high protein content.
Algix’s first-ever product was an algae-based flexible foam that adds spring and comfort to footwear. This is BLOOM EVA, an acronym that stands for ethylene-vinyl acetate. Normally made from petrochemicals, this material is common in sports equipment. One hundred percent algae-based plastic is too brittle for industrial applications but when blended with conventional EVA however, it produces a resilient material with a reduced carbon footprint. BLOOM EVA was first rolled out as a foam traction pad for surfboards and is now used in shoes, sporting products, and accessories.
The company’s other products include BLOOM TPE, a resin made of algae blends for use in insoles, midsoles, yoga mats, and other footwear and sporting goods. This is a more cushioned material than the EVA. Stride by BLOOM replaces petroleum-based thermoplastic elastomers in the soles and shoe platforms. The BLOOM biopolymer range is now used by many companies including H&M, Adidas, Billabong. “We have been focused on branded consumer products because of their recent interest and adoption of sustainability as a core pillar of their brand and products,” says Hunt.
These biopolymers are just as difficult to recycle as normal plastics. “Polymers are polymers, they come in thousands of ‘flavors’ and the laws of physics and chemistry apply equally to both”, explains Ryan. “For thermoplastics, polymers that can melt and be re-processed, have a fundamental issue where the physical properties degrade slightly with each cycle.” However, algae biopolymers do cut down on resource use, energy use, and water use. Blending them with conventional materials makes for products that hold net environmental benefits.
Algix has devised that rare business model that combines manufacture with environmental remediation. The company initially started out cultivating algae that fed on wastewater effluents. They set up raceway ponds and enclosed photobioreactors for growing feedstock near power plants. Here, their algae could grow on the nutrient-rich by-products from energy generation. Only algal species that metabolised pollutants efficiently were selected.
After being fed on wastewater, the algae is harvested dried, milled, and turned into polymer resin pellets. The organisms perform a natural clean-up operation that is paid for by their sale as high-value products. Their partnership with utility companies was a win-win. Industrial effluents that would have caused uncontrolled algal blooms once released into the water were captured as inputs for farmed algae strains. “This approach is the long-term solution as we need to intercept pollution PRIOR to releasing it into the environment and causing undesirable harmful algal blooms”.
The company found another way of procuring their precious algal feedstock. Alongside rearing algae on industrial effluents, they are also hoovering up wild algal blooms from natural habitats. These projects are conducted in partnership with government agencies and contractors. Recently, they have been contracted by the Chinese government to clean up Lake Tai in the Yangtze Delta, one of the largest freshwater lakes in China. “The Lake Tai operation produces copious amounts of algae biomass as a by-product from harvesting algae and filtering water to clean the lake.”
Cyanobacteria blooms were also causing trouble closer to home. In 2016 the Florida governor declared a state of emergency over the issue. The state’s largest freshwater lake, Lake Okeechobee, filled with toxic slime that spread to beaches along the eastern coast. The bloom contaminated drinking water, emptied tourist sites and drained the local economy. The species behind this outbreak was Lyngbya. It is harmful to animals, producing symptoms like skin rashes and severe respiratory issues.
Lake Okeechobee is a prime example of how anthropogenic pollution aggravates bloom breakouts. The lake accumulates runoff from surrounding industry and farmland. Mark Perry, executive director of the Florida Oceanographic Society, stated that pollution limits for the lake established in 2001 are not being met. Phosphorus levels in the lake are supposed to be limited to 105 metric tons a year but in 2015 they reached 450 tons.
In 2016, Algix was approached by engineering company AECOM to collaborate on the Lake Okeechobee problem. With their experience in environmental services and infrastructure, AECOM stepped in to clean up the hazard. They enlisted Algix to valorise the collected biomass. Algix’s patented trailer-mounted mobile algae harvesting units were deployed. These use an ‘air floatation technology’ for drawing out algae in a targeted manner. Microscopic air bubbles attach to algae and sediment, separating them from clear water.
By 2018, their algae clean-up partnership was in full swing. In that year, another emergency had been declared by the state. This time, AECOM was granted $700, 000im state funding to remove Florida’s algae. It collected around 417, 5000 gallons of algal slurry from 23 sites. This contract was a test pilot programme but more government work could be coming their way. A bill passed its first committee stop in November 2021 that would require the Florida Department of Environmental Protection to procure technology for removing harmful algae from water bodies.
Algix wants to see more of this kind of interest from the authorities. “We have not had the engagement with NGO’s and Government organizations to the degree one may hope for considering the global implications of harmful algae blooms and how our technology could mitigate this threat to humanity and the environment.” This lack of demand from the government is surprising given that all fifty states in the US face algae management problems.
Their work is, however, attracting attention from Chinese public authorities. In 2020, a delegation from Yixing city travelled to Algix’s plant in Mississippi. Yinxing is located on the shores of Lake Tai where Algix has harvested algae. The Chinese delegation wanted to learn how to manufacture high-performance materials from algae. China has been a huge bloom hotspot in recent decades. The 2021 bloom mass in the Yellow Sea was 2.3 times the size of the record-breaking occurrence in 2013. The seaweed aquaculture industry is responsible for the inland algal surges. Currently, the Chinese algal biomaterial industry is non-existent but authorities are looking to change this.
Using wild stock does have its own technical challenges. In a recent research paper, Ryan Hunt and co-authors noted optimising wild harvests requires accurate forecasting technologies that indicate precisely when and where blooms will occur. Collecting algae from natural habitats also tends to be more fragmented and logistically demanding than cultivating algae on the wastewater stream of a nearby plant.
These problems are not insurmountable, according to Hunt. Coordination between environmental managers and industry can overcome the challenges of field harvesting. A US Algae Interagency Working Group that amalgamates relevant government agencies is already coordinating federal R&D. This kind of targeted, multi-agency effort will be critical to solving problems specific to harmful algae bloom exploitation. Major challenges are how to harvest low-density or saltwater outbreaks.
Currently, only 1% of annual plastic production in the world is bioplastics. The global bioplastics & biopolymers market size is projected to grow from USD 10.7 billion in 2021 to USD 29.7 billion by 2026. While biomaterial companies race to find cost-effective ways of growing algal feedstock, algal blooms offer a free and abundant alternative. At the other end of the equation, bioplastics are increasingly in demand from consumers and businesses. Clothing companies are eager to make reputational gains in the eyes of eco-savvy customers by moving away from petrochemical-derived products. Algix’s commercial success with harmful blooms is an approach that environmental policymakers should take note of.