Stephen Mayfield at algae tank
Stephen Mayfield develops sustainable products based on algae. Photo by Erik Jepsen for UC San Diego Publications

The U.S. Department of Energy awarded a $2 million grant to a group of UC San Diego biologists to research plastic polymers based on algae that degrade easier than normal plastics, the university announced Monday.

The award is part of an $80 million grant package from the DOE Bioenergy Technologies Office to fund a total of three dozen bioenergy research and development projects. UCSD researchers plan to use algae platforms to produce a monomer used in polyurethane polymers with the goal of developing cost-effective plastics that are more ecologically friendly. Algae-based plastics are currently far more expensive than fossil fuel-based plastics.

“This grant is part of a significant new initiative by the Department of Energy and other agencies to support the `bio-economy,’ which is using living organisms to manufacture products,” said principal investigator Stephen Mayfield, who also directs the California Center for Algae Biotechnology and the Food and Fuel for the 21st Century program. “This is one of the fastest growing sectors for creating new jobs, as well as for developing new advanced materials and products.”

Mayfield and other UCSD researchers have already had success in making algae-based surfboards and flip-flops. Given their proximity to the Pacific Ocean, which includes a Texas-sized mass of trash and non-biodegradable solids, the research team eventually wants make all plastics fully renewable and biodegradable.

“Biobased, renewable, sustainable materials are the future of the plastics industry,” said UCSD chemistry and biochemistry professor Skip Pomeroy. “Originally founded on petroleum, these materials have to be redesigned because 1) the oil will run out and 2) because of their persistence in the environment as evidenced by the plastic trash heap in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.”

–City News Service