To produce plastic, we need fossil fuels. In fact, the plastic industry accounts for about six percent of global oil consumption. This is expected to reach 20 percent by 2050.
A start-up based in Western Australia is producing an alternative to petroleum-based plastic using seaweed, thanks to funding from CSIRO’s Kick-Start program, an initiative that provides funding and support for innovative Australian start-ups and small businesses to access CSIRO’s research expertise and capabilities to help grow and develop their business.
Co-founder of ULUU Dr Julia Reisser has a long history with plastics. For instance, she mapped microplastic pollution within Australian waters during her PhD studies. Through her work, she understands all too well the impact plastics can have.
What do microbes have to do with it?
“Biomaterials made from seaweed offers many benefits. They are biodegradable so help reduce plastic pollution” said Dr Reisser. “Seaweed also absorbs carbon dioxide. Additionally, very little fossil fuels are needed to farm them.”
ULUU is making a class of biomaterials called polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). These natural polymers mimic petrochemical plastics very well. For instance, they are strong and water insoluble.
To generate their product, ULUU uses a two-step process. Firstly, seaweed is converted into sugars. Secondly, it's fermented in vats to produce natural polyesters. It looks like a powder. This is all made possible through the action of microbes.
“So far, the results for scaling up seaweed-derived polymers to replace plastics at scale is very promising.”
Seaweed and sustainability
The ULUU material is sustainable as it can be re-used, recycled or composted.
The seaweed used to produce ULUU is sourced from sustainable small-scale farms in Indonesia. It's then fermented at a lab in WA. This is where CSIRO science comes in.
Dr Pete Cass from CSIRO Manufacturing specialises in biodegradable plastic technologies. He has been working with ULUU to analyse its product quality.
"For our research, a range of testing is tailoring the material's properties. As a result, it could then be used in the manufacturing of different products. This includes packaging," said Dr Cass.
“ULUU’s quality is being assessed by various chemical and mechanical methods. This will enable the production of high-quality and durable products.
“To investigate the polymers purity, we have been testing how the polymer performs using conventional polymer processing equipment. And how it tolerates high processing temperatures.”
The future of seaweed derived materials
Following the completion of product testing, the ULUU team will focus on scaling up the technology and their fermentation capabilities.
“It’s exciting that the humble seaweed could be the source of a natural and alternative material to some conventional plastics,” shared Julia.
“The idea is to plug and play with existing manufacturing infrastructure. This will make the transition more cost effective.”
Looking ahead, ULUU aims to have its pilot plant facility operational in 2023. In addition, ULUU is looking to launch their first ‘made with ULUU’ products by the end of 2023.