AlgaeAboard : Material Research

(AlgaeAboard is my final major project for MA Product Design at Manchester School of Art. It sets in the context of canal boat dwelling. At the beginning of the chain, algae act as the organism that clean the canal. They are then harvested to process into algae bioplastic and make into products used on the boat. The products return back to the nature at the end of its life by virtue of the material’s biodegradability.)

Green Plastic Book
I started by picking up the book ‘Green Plastic’. It taught me about the properties of biodegradable plastic in depth. It is a very good introductory book, suitable for anyone who does not even have any knowledge in biology or chemistry. Just like a recipe book, I learnt how to make bioplastic in my own kitchen and make some modification for algae.
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Parallel to finishing the book, I headed down to London and spoke to Dr. Anne Jungblut from Natural History Museum. She specializes in genomics and microbial biodiversity division, specifically cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) in extreme condition – the Artic and Antarctic. One fascinating fact that I learnt from her is that some species of microalgae can produce orange or purple pigments. Another interesting truth is many of us know that flamingo is originally white and turns pink because they ingested the shrimps or crabs. But what we don’t know is the shrimps and crabs had eaten the pink algae! Now if we consume orange algae (which may carries the characteristic of uv protection), we might turn orange! It was very kind of her to share her knowledge on microalgae, how to culture them and ended with a nice tour around their lab behind closed doors.

To quickly get my hands on the material I need, I dug up some algae from Regent’s Canal. With the hindsight from Anne, I was questioning if I collect water from different places or grow algae in different water condition, they may turn out differently? This can be an interesting contextual driven material. Unfortunately, they require constant feed of nutrient or else they would just die after a week (which I couldn’t afford to do with the project’s timeframe)

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Next, I met more people who can help me in this project. Jon Pittman is a lecturer in the Cellular Systems Section of the Faculty of Life Sciences, also the Programme Director for the Plant Science and Cell Biology BSc degrees . His research interest revolves around stress responses in algae and plant. We covered over the matter briefly and I managed to get an alga species – Chlamydomonas reinhardtii (ideal model systems to perform research study in a photosynthetic organism at the single cell level). Sadly, it won’t be as useful for me to make into algae bioplastic. Also, the yield of culturing microalgae is relatively low if not grown in a large scale. In response to that, I decided that I have to focus on macroalgae instead as they are resource readily available in the canals.

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With the help of my tutor, I was connected to collaborate with two polymer scientists – Michele Edge and Chris Liauw at Manchester Metropolitan University. Our first meeting was great. We discussed about the viability of my intention to make algae bioplastic and potential processes that I can use. Getting a pre-made cellulose-based bioplastic material can be a stable variable to escalate the production. That said, the role of algae here is as an additive to the final composite material. I am so fired up at this moment. I could not wait to use the facilities they have!

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I also got in touch with Jane Wood, a senior lecturer of Textile Technology from the Department of Apparel. She is very interested in my project even though she is currently looking at biomaterial produced by kombucha fermentation. We threw some ideas around and finally discussed about how cheap fabric like cotton calico can be a potential alternative for molding.

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Another interesting person I spoke to is Dr Michael Eden, a design research fellow at MIRIAD, Manchester School of Art. He is a maker whose work sits at the intersection of craft, design and art, exploring contemporary themes through the redesign of historical, culturally familiar objects utilising digital manufactruing and materials. He shares some good pointers, insights on 3D printing and even threw out some ideas on material composition. Although our discussion has no direct correlation to the project, the short Skype session was enlightening.

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My other favourite person I have been trying to get in touch with is Lucie Libotte. She is a Material Futures graduate from Central Saint Martins and her graduate project – Dust Matters has received a lot of attention. We spoke about each other’s project. She is also kind to give me plenty of advices, ideas and methodologies in material experimentation. The hour-long Skype call doesn’t seem enough.

Coming Up: Material Experimentation
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