Gen3Bio transforms municipal wastewater by converting landfill expenses into profitable specialty chemicals.

by Joanna Malaczynski

The demand for bioplastics is growing globally. Major consumer brands are investing in bioplastics as an opportunity to lower their environmental footprint, including Lego, and Danone, among others. Indeed, the rising demand for bioplastics is influencing the next generation of material choices for packaging and consumer goods.

As demand for bioplastics grows, the industry is starting to feel the challenge of finding sustainable biofeedstocks. Algae appears to be a promising source. Kelvin Okamoto is the Founder and CEO of Gen3Bio, an innovative company that converts algae into biofeedstock for resale using a proprietary blend of enzymes. Dr. Okamoto says that Gen3Bio harvests the algae from treatment processes that filter problematic nutrients from wastewater.

Gen3Bio has a mobile pilot facility that hooks into the nutrient removal systems at wastewater treatment plants, utilizing its own blends of algae. Gen3Bio then harvests the spent algae for processing and resale. The company plans to share a percentage of net revenue from the sale of the resulting algae biofeedstock with wastewater facilities.

The main outputs of Gen3Bio’s operation include sugars, fats, and proteins from the spent algae. Gen3Bio ferments sugars extracted from the algae to produce succinic acid. Succinic acid has multiple uses; among them, it is a common ingredient in the production of polybutylene succinate (PBS). PBS is a biodegradable thermoplastic with properties similar to polypropylene. It is sometimes blended with PLA, another bioplastic. It can be used for the production of both durables (e.g. fishnets, automotive composites) and non-durables (e.g. food packaging, disposable cups).

While Gen3Bio harvests spent algae from a wastewater treatment process, Omega Material Sciences filters problematic algae directly out of the water. Omega Material Sciences is an R&D lab that is working on a large-scale source of algae feedstock for bioplastics. Its founder, Keith Ervin, has developed a water treatment media to safely extract algae blooms from both freshwater and wastewater at high volumes.

Dr. Ervin notes that traditional approaches to algae remediation cannot generate biofeedstock at meaningful scales because they kill off algae, leading the organism to emit toxins into the water upon their demise. His method leads to chemical and mechanical separation of algae blooms from water, making it safe and effective in producing clean water and harvesting the algae at a commercial scale.

Dr. Ervin has received significant attention from the water treatment community for his technology. Building the infrastructure to harvest his algae at scale to feed the demand for bioplastics will require collaboration and investment across industries, however. “Partnerships within the greater supply chain will be required to get commercially-grown algae into large-scale bioplastics production,” says Barry Cohen, President of The National Algae Association.

Algae is already making an appearance in consumer products. Algix, a company located in Meridian, Mississippi, has been producing a plastic composite out of algae for several years. The bioplastic from algae is combined with traditional plastics to create Algix’ Solaplast line of resins, which are approximately 45% algae. Ryan Hunt, Co-Founder and CTO at Algix, said that the algae acts as a bio-based filler in the Solaplast resins, lowering the environmental footprint of the resulting composite.

Algix’ daughter company, Bloom, converts the algae composite into an EVA foam that can be used in consumer goods. Bloom’s algae foam can already be found in some flip flops, running shoes, and even surfboard traction pads. The company is launching products with companies such as Adidas, Altra Running, BOGS, Clark’s, Toms, Vivobarefoot, EcoAlf, Billabong, Saola, TenTree, Red Wings, Slater Design, Surftech, Biota and Chippewa.

Mr. Hunt noted that most of the algae used by his company is a wastewater treatment by-product. Algix likes working with wastewater algae because it contains high levels of proteins, the building-blocks of bioplastics. He said that algae living in nutrient rich conditions – such as wastewater and overly-fertilized waterways — are especially productive in producing these proteins.

Algae could be an effective biofeedstock for food-grade plastics; many American commercial algae growers already produce a food-grade product for other markets. An emerging Oregon start-up, AlgoteK, has produced an algae-based food-grade film, sourcing its algae from China. The AlgoteK film degrades in contact with water, which makes it suitable for certain single-use applications. David Crinnion, Co-Founder of AlgoteK, noted that he is committed to working with the bio-based material in its purest form because it is easily compostable and bio-degradable.

Joanna Malaczynski is a consultant at DESi Potential