What’s happening to the super-alternatives? Algae- and bamboo-based options

Materials World magazine
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26 Nov 2013

The much-publicised properties of bamboo and algae have made them media darlings. And yet, where are they in our daily lives? Eoin Redahan investigates.

In recent years, algae has been mooted as something of a super-material, mainly due to its potential use as a biofuel. Despite existing at the bottom of the food chain, its résumé reads well — it can be grown on wastewater using the sun and CO2 and, unlike other biofuels, it eliminates the food–fuel debate.

After assessing more than 100 sustainable technologies, Dan Simon felt that algae’s potential surpassed the others. However, the President and CEO of algae production company Heliae, based in the USA, realised the biofuel route wasn’t going to make money – certainly not in the short term.

Simon says, ‘We looked hard at algae-based fuels early on, but we saw that there are major barriers to commercialising a fuel pathway that will keep algae biofuels on the horizon for now. The biggest hurdle is the cost of production and scale. Until algae-based fuels can compete at a price point comparable to conventional fuels, this is an impossible purchasing decision for a consumer. Scale must increase dramatically. To have an impact on a trillion dollar market, such as transportation fuels, will take time.’

However, the Arizona-based company has realised algae’s potential in other areas. Heliae has cut itself a niche in high-value markets, including using algae in livestock feed, cosmetics, and in agroscience products to improve crop hardiness and increase growth.

The company is still looking at algae fuel as a long-term goal that could be realised when production costs decrease. In the meantime, there is a lot of money to be harvested at the bottom of the food chain.

Bamboo – trusting a grass
Troy Wiseman does not want to make bamboo floors. He is not vying for a berth in the ancillary product slipway. The CEO of Chicago-based EcoPlanet Bamboo, says, ‘We have never seen ourselves in the bamboo business, but rather in the timber replacement business.’

Bamboo has been eulogised for a lot longer than algae. The extraordinary properties of the fastgrowing grass include rapid maturation, flexibility and strength. And yet, for all its proponents, it is strangely absent in the western world – certainly as a construction material.

Wiseman says, ‘There are two primary reasons why bamboo hasn’t been seen on a large scale in the past. First, was the supply. Bamboo supply was made up of smallholder farmers, primarily in China, who lacked the quality control, transparency, reliability, quantity, diversification of species, or the certification and standards necessary for the large commercial companies. Therefore, major timberbased manufacturing operations could not rely on bamboo as a resource for commercialisation. Secondly, it was difficult to obtain plantation scale amounts of seeds or seedlings. Bamboo has an inconsistent and long period between flowering events (once every 70–100 years in many cases), making seeds rare.’

However, Wiseman notes that advances in tissue propagation have given access to larger volumes of seedlings. Furthermore, he says that with logging regulations stiffening in Europe and the USA, the supply of illegally logged tropical timber will be reduced by about 30%. He says the market effects of these environmental initiatives will increase the price of wood, motivating companies to seek alternative fibre solutions and believes bamboo can fill the gap.

Like Heliae, EcoPlanet Bamboo also has fingers in several R&D pies. Apart from developing bamboo to replace boards, structural beams and plywood in construction, the company is also using bamboo fibre to create charcoal and to produce bioethanol (bamboo is in the same family as sugarcane).

The natural predicament
Natural materials must play by the same rules as their synthetic alternatives. When it comes down to commercial viability, sustainability is a bonus rather than a determining factor. Dr John Williams, Chief Technical Officer of London-based Sinvestec LLC (an investor in clean tech and low-carbon technologies), explains, ‘If you enter a market that currently exists, you want something that is functionally better than the competition. You then start to tick the other boxes. But if you start with, “I’m sustainable. I’m low carbon. I have a really good end-of-life solution, but functionally I’m no better,” then what’s the point? You’re taking a step backwards.’

Alternative materials must also wrestle with legislation, even if their performance characteristics surpass those of existing materials. Williams says, ‘I was involved in a project for a material called Hemcrete (a mixture of hemp, lime and a small amount of cement) in which we built demonstration houses that were very successful. It has been used commercially in private projects, but it’s very difficult to adopt as a mainstream building material because all the existing legislation that was in place involved brick and block construction.’

As Williams says, we live in a ‘now’ society. When we hear of super-computers and invisibility cloaks, we want to see them. We want to buy them.

But, he adds, ‘I think these things go through a classic curve. You have this huge expectation initially. It drops away and everyone thinks it has died a death, but a lot of work is going on in the background. And then, suddenly, the material appears as a commercial animal.’