This Company Is Using Algae to Make Environmentally Friendly Inks

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©. Living Ink

Instead of heavy metals, petroleum products, and toxic solvents, this printing ink is made with algae grown by Living Ink.

The trend of moving away from fossil fuel products and toward more renewable alternatives is reaching a lot more than just the transportation sector, as we're seeing with innovations in bioplastics, fungi-based processes, and similar biodegradable or compostable materials. Algae has a big part to play in the coming bio-materials revolution, as items in categories as diverse as food, fashion, and fuel can be produced from different varieties of it, and in the near future, your home or office printer could be using an algae-based ink.

Printing inks are ridiculously expensive, full of potentially harmful ingredients, and cover all sorts of materials around us everyday. From office papers to newspapers to magazines and books, all the way to the monthly mailing of bills we get at home, to the printing on shipping boxes and grocery labels, it's everywhere. And according to Living Ink, most of it is based on petroleum byproducts, which, among the other myriad ecological issues that fossil fuels have, tend to persist in the environment for a very long 'afterlife'. A far safer alternative to conventional inks, says company co-founder and CEO Scott Fulbright, is to use algae cells as biopigments, and to replace the petroleum-based ink ingredients with plant-based ones, which is what his company has actively been working on for the last few years.

Scott Fulbright's 2016 TEDxMileHigh talk:

Living Ink has been developing its own line of algae cell cultures specifically for their colors, which can range from yellow to magenta to cyan, as well as their suitability as pigments for printing inks. The company was named a Top 25 nominee for the Green Challenge and currently offers screenprinting and letterpress printing with algae ink for items such as stationery, business cards, invitations, and packaging products, as well as doing custom printing work. A recent agreement with Ecoenclose, a sustainable packaging firm, will supply that company with Living Ink's algae-based product for its customer base, with the next aim being to develop more colors and formulations to "sell ink to printers worldwide," in part by scaling up production of the algae by partnering with large-scale algae "farmers."

In an interview with the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge team, Fulbright offered some hard numbers for the impact that algae inks could have:

"Normal ink consists of 80% petroleum products and 20% pigments. Approximately 4 billion kg of ink are produced annually, which produces about 13.2 billion kg of CO2 equivalent. This is obviously difficult to calculate and many assumptions need to be made, but our biggest point is reducing the amount of petroleum that is used. By reducing the need for petroleum we hope to reduce the negative externalities related to oil drilling, production and usage.
"Not only are we replacing petroleum products in ink production, we are also able to use environmental CO2 during the algae growth. Every ton of algae removes 2 tonnes of carbon dioxide. We’re ‘pulling’ CO2 out of the air to get the materials to make our ink products. When you look at the algae cells, the dry pigments that we use for our ink, you can literally touch the carbon material that previously was carbon dioxide. For us, that is beyond exciting.
"By replacing current ink pigments we have the potential of replacing 3 billion kg CO2 equivalent. And we have the potential to use 1.2 million tonnes of algae, which corresponds to 2.4 billion kg CO2 equivalent removed from the atmosphere and sequestered into ink pigments. In summary, we have an opportunity to remove a net 5.4 billion kg CO2."

During the process of developing the algae ink, an interesting side effect was used to further the project, as the company launched a "time-lapse bio-ink" campaign on Kickstarter, which used the natural cycle of reproduction of the algae to create a piece of art with the ink and then 'grow' it in a tiny greenhouse.