Is algae the ink of the future? | Scott Fulbright | TEDxMileHigh

Is algae the ink of the future? | Scott Fulbright | TEDxMileHigh


Translator: Denise RQ
Reviewer: Lena Clemente I sat down to write
a talk about sustainability, but then I heard an airplane. I became curious about
where it took off from, where it was going, and why do only some airplanes
leave white streaks behind them. As I’m thinking this, I look over
at my two-year-old son, and he’s pointing up at the plane. That’s when I realized I have
the curiosity of a two-year-old. (Laughter) And having the curiosity
of a two-year-old comes with some unique challenges. When I was in high school,
I took the ACT exam, and the proctor said, “Please use
a number-two pencil and begin.” All of my peers dropped their head
and started filling in the little bubbles. I sat there, and I got curious
about what’s the difference between a number-one
and a number-two pencil. (Laughter) I started thinking about nylon. What’s it made out of,
and why is it so loud? Why do humans start
to twitch when we get nervous? And most importantly, why does the girl behind me
with the nervous twitch have nylon swoosh pants on? (Laughter) For six hours, all I heard
was, “Shh, shh, shh, shh.” (Laughter) It’s times like this that I’ve had
to contain my curiosity. I must’ve done OK
because I got into college. In my first year there, all my friends got internships
in marketing and finance, but not me. I wanted to do Marine Biology – in the middle of Michigan. (Laughter) There’s no whales,
dolphins, or sea turtles, but there is algae. You know, algae; the plant-like organism
that grows in rivers and lakes? I became curious about algae, and I got an internship
as an algal biologist. I quickly learned two things – one: algae are fascinating organisms
that influence our everyday life; and two: girls at college parties
loved talking about algae. (Laughter) So maybe I didn’t impress any girls
by being an algal biologist, but I did become intrigued
with the world of algae. Like plants, algae use carbon dioxide
and sunlight to produce oxygen. So I want you to do me a favor. I’m going to count to three, and we’re all going to take
a big inhale, and then exhale. Ready? One, two, three. (Inhaling) (Exhaling) Over half the oxygen you just inhaled
was produced from algae. Over half; that’s insane! It’s literally keeping us alive. Algae grow everywhere: on your shoes,
in your dog’s water bowl, definitely in your local ponds,
and on the back of this sloth. (Laughter) Sorry, I just like to throw
a sloth slide in when I can. (Laughter) Algae are the foundation
of the aquatic ecosystem, and they come in a variety of colors. The brown, the red, and the green are just different species of algae. Here’s the coolest part:
algae grow really fast; so fast that scientists are trying
to domesticate algae for products like biofuels
and animal feed. This is a picture of a large open pond
that’s growing algae cells. The algae cells are extracted
from the water to be made into these products. These bioproducts
have a huge potential to make the world
much more sustainable, and it’s currently undergoing
commercialization. I wanted to play a part
of this commercialization, so I went to Colorado State University, and I got my PhD in the Cell
and Molecular Biology program. I spent thousands of hours
in the office and in the laboratory researching algae growth projects
for commercialization. Then, on a summer day in 2013,
I was in the algae research laboratory and my wandering mind got away from me, and I realized it was
my grandma’s birthday. My grandma likes a good greeting card, so I had to run out of the laboratory
to the local grocery store, and I got stuck
in this greeting card aisle. I became curious
about what’s a greeting card? It’s just paper and ink. But what’s ink? I looked all around me, and I realized every product,
package, and sign was covered in ink. So what is ink? Ink is 80% petroleum products. Petroleum comes from places
like tar sands operations where vegetation is stripped so that oil can be extracted
from the earth. This devastates entire ecosystems. The other 20% of ink are pigments. Pigments are often minerals
that are mined from the earth. Sometimes, they can be petroleum. For example, carbon black is the pigment
that makes your printer ink at home black, and it’s a known carcinogen. So not only is ink toxic
and unsustainable, it’s the most expensive liquid we buy. If you do the math
about your printer ink at home, it’s about 10,000 dollars a gallon. My curiosity kept me learning about ink. What was most fascinating to me was that a traditional ink pigment
is about the same size as an algae cell. That’s when I first realized, “Could we use algae
as a sustainable ink replacement?” Talk about curiosity overdrive. Within three months, my best friend from graduate school
and I started a company developing and commercializing
algae ink products. Believe it or not, algae worked
really great as an ink. And, like I mentioned earlier,
algae come in a variety of colors. There’s blues, reds, yellows, and so on. Nature’s already developed
these cells and these colors; we’re just developing
new methods to use them. So how do we turn algae into ink? We grow algae
in these controlled containers. We then harvest the cells, meaning
that we concentrate them down, and then we add plant-based components
to make the ink formula. Then we can print on paper,
cardboard, and even cotton textiles. So we’re not extracting finite,
toxic materials from the earth; we’re using carbon dioxide and sunlight to literally grow our pigments
for the most sustainable ink in the world. Our ink is 100% biodegradable, meaning that if you put it
in your compost pile, it would degrade in a matter of days. The ink that’s on your agenda
right now will never degrade. We’re working with some
of the biggest companies in the world to develop and commercialize
this technology for products like packaging ink,
marketing materials, and even pen ink. We’re super excited. We’ve developed a renewable,
sustainable, and safe ink. But why stop there? We developed a second ink technology
where we use living algae cells as an ink that grows over time
when exposed to light. It’s the world’s first time-lapse ink. I’ll show you a greeting card
product that we made. On day one, there’s a picture
of an owl, and it says, “Owl.” On day two, the algae cells grow,
forming another owl. (Laughter) And on day three, another image
grows, and it says, “Owl always love you.” (Laughter) (Applause) I’ll show you that
in a real-time video here. We’re going to take this ink and make products like greeting cards,
promotional products, and science kits that will inspire
the next generation of scientists. We envision a world where your cereal box is covered
in sustainable algae ink, and the billboard you drive by
changes every day because the ink is alive. Every once and a while, I’m reminded that this idea started
with a simple question of, “What is ink?” These wandering mind inventions
are common in science. Velcro was invented by a Swiss engineer who went for a walk and saw a burr
sticking to his pants and his dog. Penicillin was developed
by a Scottish scientist who came back from vacation
to find a type of fungus killing bacteria on his dirty dishes. So curiosity taking cues from nature
have long been part of innovation. So maybe a wandering mind
isn’t actually a bad thing. What if every once in a while,
we let our curiosity get the best of us? What if we asked more questions
about our existing conditions? Let’s take more time
to wonder, to get curious, and to let our minds wander. So I challenge you
to combine your perspective with the curiosity of a two-year-old. Let your curiosity
lead you down the unknown path, because you never know
where it will lead you. And lastly, I believe that if we allow
our curiosity to thrive, and we use nature a template, we will develop amazing innovations
to overcome the sustainability challenges that we face today. Thank you very much. (Applause)

9 thoughts on “Is algae the ink of the future? | Scott Fulbright | TEDxMileHigh

  1. Sooooo….. if one paints his house with living algae paint wouldn't he help combat global warming and the greenhouse effect? If algae produces 50% of earth's oxygen then imagine what it would do if most houses were covered with it.Mass produce this paint!!!!

  2. How amazing to look at the world through the lens of a 2 year old. Who knows what we might discover? I look forward to buying a sustainable greeting card that will change over time.

  3. Fascinating! We need to Support Talks like this & take a stand to avoid the World from Spiraling down to it's Doom!!!

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