British scientists are betting that diatoms - a group of unicellular, eukaryotic algae found (mostly) in the open oceans - could provide the ideal solution for making the manufacture a variety of consumer products, including cosmetics and fabrics, more cost-effective and eco-friendly. The plentiful phytoplankton possess a characteristic silica shell, known as a frustule, that is capable of displaying a stunning array of colors that fluctuates depending on its orientation towards light - similar to the effect produced by having light reflected from a thin layer of oil on water.
The team of researchers from the University of Oxford has found a very cost-effective way of growing the miniature organisms in controlled lab conditions (using a special culture medium), laying the groundwork for industrial-scale production. They envision the frustules being incorporated into everything from paints and clothing to credit card holograms and other polymers. Adopting this technology would eschew what has typically been a high impact, resource intensive process to build artificial reflectors - growing diatoms only requires standard conditions, including normal room temperature and pressure, and, under the right circumstances, has the advantage of being extremely speedy.
"It’s a very efficient and cost-effective process, with a low carbon footprint. Its simplicity and its economic and environmental benefits could in future encourage industry to develop a much wider range of exciting products that change colour as they or the observer move position. What’s more, the shells themselves are completely biodegradable, aiding eventual disposal and further reducing the environmental impact of the process life cycle ... Whatever the case, exploiting their tiny shells’ remarkable properties could make a big impact across industry. They could even have the potential to be incorporated into paint to provide a water-repellent surface, making it self-cleaning," said Andrew Parker, one the project's lead scientists.
In light of the anticipated (and decidedly) harmful effects of ocean acidification on the diatoms' future ability to produce their frustules, this scheme may prove (unfortunately) relatively short-lived.