Could seaweed replace plastic?

By March 21st, 2022

CSIRO is testing seaweed-derived polymers for use as an alternative to conventional plastics.
ULUU seaweed-derived plastic film

ULUU seaweed-derived polymers can be re-used, recycled or composted

To produce plastic, we need fossil fuels. In fact, the plastic industry accounts for about six percent of global oil consumption. This is expected to reach 20 percent by 2050.

A start-up based in Western Australia is producing an alternative to petroleum-based plastic using seaweed, thanks to funding from CSIRO’s Kick-Start program, an initiative that provides funding and support for innovative Australian start-ups and small businesses to access CSIRO’s research expertise and capabilities to help grow and develop their business.

Co-founder of ULUU Dr Julia Reisser has a long history with plastics. For instance, she mapped microplastic pollution within Australian waters during her PhD studies. Through her work, she understands all too well the impact plastics can have.

What do microbes have to do with it?

“Biomaterials made from seaweed offers many benefits. They are biodegradable so help reduce plastic pollution” said Dr Reisser. “Seaweed also absorbs carbon dioxide. Additionally, very little fossil fuels are needed to farm them.”

ULUU is making a class of biomaterials called polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs). These natural polymers mimic petrochemical plastics very well. For instance, they are strong and water insoluble.

To generate their product, ULUU uses a two-step process. Firstly, seaweed is converted into sugars. Secondly, it’s fermented in vats to produce natural polyesters. It looks like a powder. This is all made possible through the action of microbes.

Seaweed is converted into sugars and then fermented in vats to produce natural polyesters,

“So far, the results for scaling up seaweed-derived polymers to replace plastics at scale is very promising.”

Seaweed and sustainability

The ULUU material is sustainable as it can be re-used, recycled or composted.

The seaweed used to produce ULUU is sourced from sustainable small-scale farms in Indonesia. It’s then fermented at a lab in WA. This is where CSIRO science comes in.

Dr Pete Cass from CSIRO Manufacturing specialises in biodegradable plastic technologies. He has been working with ULUU to analyse its product quality.

“For our research, a range of testing is tailoring the material’s properties. As a result, it could then be used in the manufacturing of different products. This includes packaging,” said Dr Cass.

“ULUU’s quality is being assessed by various chemical and mechanical methods. This will enable the production of high-quality and durable products.

“To investigate the polymers purity, we have been testing how the polymer performs using conventional polymer processing equipment. And how it tolerates high processing temperatures.”

powder created from fermented seaweed

Microbes ferment seaweed into a powder which can be used as an alternative to conventional plastics

The future of seaweed derived materials

Following the completion of product testing, the ULUU team will focus on scaling up the technology and their fermentation capabilities.

“It’s exciting that the humble seaweed could be the source of a natural and alternative material to some conventional plastics,” shared Julia.

ULUU co-founders Julia Reisser and Michael Kingsbury

ULUU co-founders Michael Kingsbury and Julia Reisser

“The idea is to plug and play with existing manufacturing infrastructure. This will make the transition more cost effective.”

Looking ahead, ULUU aims to have its pilot plant facility operational in 2023. In addition, ULUU is looking to launch their first ‘made with ULUU’ products by the end of 2023.

Find out more about CSIRO bioplastics research and CSIRO’s Kick-Start program.

15 comments

  1. Great work team. It will be fantastic if the seaweed derived polymers can be commercialised and at scale; a real boon in our urgent fight to take petrochemical derivatives out of the earth’s systems.
    And let’s hope funding to the CSIRO is increasing- we need science and innovation.

  2. Great work congrats!!!

  3. Remarkable work team. You all are making history by paving the way for renewable resource development.

    I’d like to suggest applying Seamoss biomaterials to this experiment becase it may work even better due to its natural elesticity and calcium content. There is a particular species in particular called “Chondrus crispus”.

    If you are interested, i’m more than happy to help you get some shipped to you as I am in connection with the distributer nearest to your facility.

    Hope to hear from you soon.

  4. Such positive news for soo many. If government policy stated no more plastic packaging in three years, how much money would pour into this type of research by private enterprise? So good to read of this work, keep up it up and for the work to date….congratulations, you are inspiring others.

  5. Inspiring work congratulations

  6. Excellent to hear the progress in this area, now we just need to farm the seaweed locally in commercial quantities

  7. Paving the way to a plastic-free future. Thank you for your work!

  8. Amazing! I cross my fingers that processes like this will finally erase the world’s plastic problem. Congrats! I wish you the best!

  9. Wonderful work…. microbes are amazing… oh IF only Governments of all persuasions would recognise how important Science is to our present and future existence!

  10. As long as large scale seaweed harvesting is not needed. Beachwrack is a very important environmental resource! Jeff

  11. I am looking forward to learning more about your programme.
    I am hoping the seaweed is a cultivated crop and not wild harvest also will the plastic produced be biodegradable?

  12. It amazes me that the billionaires of the world want to waste their money on space tourism, when for a fraction of the cost they could get behind a project like this that could finally solve the plastics problem here on Earth. What a legacy that would be.

  13. Great work, but what’s in it for the Indonesians? They have massive plastic pollution problems in their own right.

  14. Well done and really good news! Lets hope they we (Australia) GROWS the seaweed and doesnt harvest from the ocean supplies.

  15. Great potential for those climate affected pacific nations. Carbon sequestering while growing

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