This startup turns deadly algae blooms into plastic alternatives

CC BY 2.0 Diana House

Bloom hoovers up harmful algae overgrowth from waterways and turns it into a flexible foam that can replace some petroleum-based products.

Algae blooms have gotten a lot of attention in the news lately, as the out-of-control growth of these tiny organisms tends to clog up beaches, lakes, and ponds, which not only makes it difficult, if not impossible, for people to enjoy these areas, but which can also harm aquatic species by starving them of oxygen. These algal overgrowths are said to be caused by rising temperatures and an excess of nutrients, most notably from fertilizer runoff, but also from consumer products such as detergents.

One company, Bloom, believes it has a solution for what to do with at least some of the algae, as it uses a mobile harvesting unit developed by its parent company, Algix, that can effectively vacuum up freshwater blooms in problem areas, separate the algae, remove the excess nutrients, and then return the cleaned water to the waterway. The harvested algae is dried and pelletized, and then turned into a high performance algae-based flexible foam, which can be used in sporting goods, footwear, and other applications. And as a plus, Bloom's algae foam is also available as a 100% algae-derived antimicrobial formulation (AlgaMetrix), which may help prevent the spread of bacteria and cut down on odors.

"The plant protein found in algae, like other plant proteins, exhibits interesting properties when thermomechanical forces are applied to it. By definition, protein is comprised of polymer chains of amino acids. Thus, by applying these thermomechanical forces, the protein chains are denatured, deformed and stretched out in the orientation of the mechanical forces. In an extrusion process, the deformation and stretching allows the algae cells to deform and stretch and become elongated and entangled with a given thermoplastic base resin to form a masterbatch resin. Once the masterbatch resin is formed, then conventional foaming processing can be successfully utilized for manufacturing high performance flexible foams with high algae content." - Bloom

Before you start touting the wonders of bio-foam and calling for an all-out boycott of petro-based foams, it's important to understand that the new foam products are only between 15-60% algae (see update at end of article), depending on the specific formulation. And the company's algae-based foam isn't biodegradable (yet), as it is focused on creating high performance materials for the footwear market, which requires the addition of EVA (ethylene vinyl acetate), but Bloom says it is currently capable of manufacturing a biodegradable 100% algae-based foam "depending on the application." However, even though the new foams are only partly based on renewable ingredients, the algae in the company's products does reduce the amount of petro-based ingredients required, so it is a step forward.

The company considers its foams to be "drop-in" replacements for conventional foams, and says the products are competitively priced, as well as being hypoallergenic and naturally antimicrobial. The product is available in different densities, depending on the application, and 8 stock colors, with custom colors available for larger quantities. Bloom foams can be formulated for injection molding, sheet foam, and compression and vacuum molding.

The first consumer product made with Bloom foams will be a surfboard traction pad produced in collaboration with pro surfer Kelly Slater, which will be available next month. More information on the algae foams and the company, which just entered a new partnership with AECOM for its mobile harvesting units, is available at the website.

[Update: via Bloom, "even at 15%, the environmental benefits are significant. Take, for example, the Slater Designs traction pad launching in a few days, which contains 25% algae​ (most of our applications to date have a minimum of 25%)​. Per pad, our LCA data quantifies we're returning 28 gallons of clean, filtered water back into the habitat, and ​keeping ​22 helium-balloon-sized equivalents of CO2 from being released into the atmosphere. Again, that's per pad, using life cycle assessment analysis, and not carbon credits, etc."]

This startup turns deadly algae blooms into plastic alternatives
Bloom hoovers up harmful algae overgrowth from waterways and turns it into a flexible foam that can replace some petroleum-based products.

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