By now, many have heard algae being proclaimed as the fuel source that could potentially replace a large percentage of the petroleum we use.
However, non-fuel uses of algae that can further lessen our dependence on petroleum have not gotten the attention they deserve. One such usage, while far less visible and but whom some would argue is just as important, is creating plastics.
Cereplast , a renewable plastics company, is looking into using algae as a new and renewable source of this seemingly ubiquitous material. In October 2009, it announced that algae-based resins “could replace 50 percent or more of the petroleum content used in traditional plastic resins.”
In a recent interview, Cereplast CEO Frederic Scheer explained that there are several benefits to switching over to algae-based plastics over traditional petroleum based ones. One reason is that it has the potential to help cut down the United State’s reliance on foreign oil.
“Traditional plastics are made from oil and the entire plastic and chemical industry is using up to 8 percent of our fuel and energy resources,” Scheer said. “In diverting to new [plastic] feedstock we are reducing our dependency [on foreign oil] accordingly.”
Additionally, bioplastics can offer a smaller impact on the environmental since some types of plastics created from algae will biodegrade within 180 days without leaving any harmful chemical residue.
Other than national security and environmental reasons cited above, there are several economic reasons for wanting to see an increase in bioplastic production, be it algae-based or one of Cereplast’s starch-based plastics.
Mr. Scheer stated that while the price of plastic isn’t typically a major concern to the public, it is linked to the price of petroleum and thus susceptible to volatile price swings. Cereplast’s bioplastic resins are not linked to the cost of petroleum and its “bioplastic resins require significantly less energy during production permitting additional savings.”
A notable achievement of Cereplast, which currently produces and sells its starch-based resins, has been its ability to economically stand on its own without any subsidies or tax breaks from the government.
“So far Cereplast has been growing up with no subsidies or tax incentives,” Scheer said. “We would welcome such assistance but we believe in free enterprises and therefore our products need to be economically sustainable. We would really be delighted to see tax incentives and support to what we are doing but for us it is not our mantra.”
Lastly, one of the best things about Cereplast’s process of creating bioplastics from algae is that it still allows for the co-production of algae biofuels. For example, oil can be extracted from algae for use as fuel with the remaining algal biomass being used as a source for biopolymer, or plastic, production.
Essentially, bioplastic production can be considered a co-product of algae biofuel in Cereplast’s model, giving the same batch of algae even more value. Ultimately, the successful development of co-products like bioplastics will help hasten the day when commercial production of algae biofuel is viable.
Overall, Cereplast has a very rosy outlook on the future of bioplastic resins. The company believes that the bioplastic market is growing and could top 30 percent of the total plastic market in just 10 years . However, in order for algae to play a major part in this, algae producers need to develop a commercially viable production model.
Mr. Scheer, though, has great faith in the algae industry and believes that we will begin to see these production models within the next 18 to 24 months. With the Department of Defense’s research arm, DARPA, announcing that it is just months away from producing algae biofuels at petroleum-equivalent costs, Scheer just may be right.
Article by Jonathan Williams appearing courtesy Celsias.
photos: Elsa Wenzel