Creating Materials From Algae

Jon Lawson

Lighter than aluminium and stronger than steel: introducing innovative materials with carbon fibres made from algae

In combination with granite or other types of hard rock, carbon fibres make all-new construction and building materials possible. Theoretical calculations show that if the carbon fibres are produced from algae oil, production of the innovative materials extracts more carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere than it sets free. A research project spearheaded by the Technical University of Munich (TUM) is to further advance these technologies.

The most recent global climate report (IPCC Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5°C) considers manufacturing processes that use more CO2 than they release to be an important option to get climate change under control.

The objective of the new project bearing the title “Green Carbon” is to develop manufacturing processes for polymers and carbon-based lightweight construction materials based on algae, which may be used in the aviation and automotive industry, for example.

The development of the various processes is accompanied by technological, economical and sustainability analyses. The German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (Bundesministerium für Bildung und Forschung, BMBF) has dedicated funds amounting to around €6.5 million to fund the research at TUM.

Microalgaes and CO2

Due to their fast growth, microalgae such as those cultivated in the technical algae centre at TUM’s Ludwig Bölkow Campus south of Munich can actively store the greenhouse gas CO2 in form of biomass. CO2 is mainly bound in sugars and algae oil. These can be used in chemical and biotechnological processes to produce precursors for a variety of industrial processes.

For example, oil-forming yeasts produce yeast oil from the algae sugars, which is a feedstock for sustainable plastics. Furthermore, enzymes can split the yeast oil into glycerine and free fatty acids. The free fatty acids are precursors for products such as high-quality additives for lubricants, among others; the glycerine can be turned into carbon fibres.

The Sustainable Production of Carbon Fibres

In the further course of the project, the plastics will be combined with the carbon fibres to produce corresponding composite materials. “The carbon fibres produced from algae are absolutely identical to the fibres currently in use in the industry,” says project lead Thomas Brück, Professor for Synthetic Biotechnology at TU Munich. “Therefore, they can be used for all standard processes in aviation and automotive production.”

Furthermore, carbon fibres and hard rock can be used in a process of the industrial partner TechnoCarbon Technologies to produce novel construction materials. Not only do they have a negative CO2 balance, they are also lighter than aluminium and stronger than steel

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