Oh algae, what can’t you do for humanity? We can turn it into biofuel, superfood, and everything else, but that’s not all, apparently.
In the future, at least according to researchers from New York and the Netherlands, we might wear algae clothes, because this thing is just that capable.
An international team of researchers from the University of Rochester and Delft University of Technology used 3D printers and a new bioprinting technique. To be specific, they printed algae into living, photosynthetic materials that are tough and resilient.
So it’s not actually pure algae, and we also have 3D printing to thank. However, the researchers have created a material that has a variety of applications in the energy, medical, and you’ve guessed it, fashion sectors.
“Three-dimensional printing is a powerful technology for fabrication of living functional materials that have a huge potential in a wide range of environmental and human-based applications,” said first author Srikkanth Balasubramanian of Delft University.
“We provide the first example of an engineered photosynthetic material that is physically robust enough to be deployed in real-life applications,” Balasubramanian went on.
Combining living and nonliving components
How did the researchers managed to create a new material by combining two types of components? They began with a non-living bacterial cellulose—an organic compound produced and excreted by bacteria.
While that may sound gross (particularly the excretion part), it has many unique mechanical properties. Bacterial cellulose is flexible, tough, strong, and able to retain its shape even when we twist, crush, or physically distort it.
Now, bacterial cellulose is like a paper in a printer, while living microalgae is like the ink. The researchers used a 3D printer to deposit living algae onto the bacterial cellulose.
If you ask me how exactly that works, I honestly don’t know. I don’t know much about 3D printing, let alone using a living component as the ‘ink’.
As a result, the combination of living and nonliving components becomes a new, unique material that has the robustness of the bacterial cellulose and the photosynthetic quality of the algae.
Not only that the new material is tough and robust, it’s also eco-friendly, biodegradable, and able to produce rather easily.
Because the material has a plant-like nature, it can use photosynthesis to “feed” itself over periods of many weeks and it’s regeneratable. Meaning, we can grow a small sample of this material on site to make more materials.
Artificial living leaves et cetera
Since this material has a lot of potential, it’s an ideal candidate for a variety of applications. With it, we can make artificial leaves, photosynthetic skins, or photosynthetic bio-garments.
Artificial leaves? Yep, you read that right. They can mimic real, actual leaves in a way that they use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and energy—like photosynthesis.
The fake leaves store energy in chemical form as sugars, which we can convert into fuels. So, artificial leaves can offer a way to make sustainable energy in places where plants don’t grow well.
In theory, we can take artificial leaves to outer space like Mars!
Even though artificial leaves are nothing new, the researchers claim that they made it using eco-friendly materials. They stated that most artificial leaf technologies currently used toxic chemical methods.
Anne S. Meyer, an associate professor of biology at Rochester said, “For artificial leaves, our materials are like taking the ‘best parts’ of plants—the leaves—which can create sustainable energy, without needing to use resources to produce parts of plants,”
“The stems and the roots—that need resources but don’t produce energy. We are making a material that is only focused on the sustainable production of energy.”
Photosynthetic skins and bio-garments
Now, you may be wondering how is 3D printing involving bacterial cellulose and algae could turn to be skins. Again, I haven’t the faintest idea, but, the researchers said that this is possible, and we can use the material for skin grafts.
Meyer added, “The oxygen generated would help to kick-start healing of the damaged area, or it might be able to carry out light-activated wound healing.”
Fashion may change because of this material. Bio-garments made from algae might address some of the negative environmental effects of the current textile industry. This material would be high-quality fabric that’s biodegradable and sustainable to produce.
What’s more, they may also purify air by removing CO2 through photosynthesis, and we won’t need to wash it as often as conventional garments, therefore reducing water usage.
Associate professor of bionanoscience at Delft Marie-Eve Aubin-Tam said, “Our living materials are promising because they can survive for several days with no water or nutrients access, and the material itself can be used as a seed to grow new living materials,”
“This opens the door to applications in remote areas, even in space, where the material can be seeded on site.”
If you think that this sounds a bit too sci-fi, I agree. I mean, clothes that can photosynthesize? But hey, the researchers have found this new material that may benefit not only the humanity but also the Earth. And honestly, what can’t technology do nowadays?
Turning microalgae into biofuels
Similarly, although not something entirely novel, a group of researchers at Kobe University’s Engineering Biology Research Center has developed a technique.
It divides carbon resources from carbohydrates to lipids in microalgae. This technique is applicable to biofuel production.
The researchers chose microalgae because it’s highly capable of producing lipids by fixing atmospheric CO2 through photosynthesis.
However, in night and day, the majority of microalgae’s carbon resources obtained from CO2 are accumulated as carbohydrates. It’s difficult to get microalgae to produce lipids, and this is a problem when we’re cultivating microalgae species outside.
Therefore, the researchers used ion beam mutagenesis to develop a strain of microalgae that can produce large amounts of lipids even under light/dark conditions. Basically, they created a microalgae mutant.
But in this new version of microalgae, the starch debranching enzyme gene was disrupted, it then produces phytoglycogen, which is easily broken down. Then the magic begins, the carbohydrate production turns into lipid production.
What will happen in the future?
Producing biofuels using microalgae needs good cultivation of these organisms outside in the sunlight, but there’s an unavoidable decrease in lipid production. The researchers hope that this technique and research is one answer to this problem.
They hope that this new method can contribute towards the large-scale implementation of biofuel production using microalgae.
You can read the research results in the international academic journal Communications Biology (9 April 2021), if you’re interested.