TECH

Plastic-producing Algae Breakthrough Could Reduce Carbon Dioxide Levels Dramatically And Alleviate Climate Change

25/08/2015 12:21 BST | Updated 25/08/2015 12:59 BST

Plastics are one of the few materials that are a constant feature in all our lives, regardless of culture or lifestyle.

Unfortunately, the way we make it is far from sustainable since the process relies on using oil.

plastic bottles

However, scientists have found a way to turn humble algae, often found in ponds, into plastic-producing machines that could also help save the planet.

While it may sound like something out of a science fiction film, the algae we are talking about do exist but they have been genetically modified to produce plastic and absorb carbon dioxide -- one the main greenhouse gases contributing to climate change -- at the same time.

Jianping Yu, a research scientist with NREL’s Photobiology Group, genetically modified algae to make it produce a chemical known as ethylene, the basic building block of polyethylene, otherwise known as plastic.

Yu and his team were able to do this by introducing a gene into algae that codes for an ethylene-producing enzyme.

What this could effectively allow us to do in the grand scheme of plastic production, is replace our traditional source of ethylene -- oil -- with this genetically modified algae.

However, the true brilliance of this research is the algae's interaction with carbon dioxide.

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According to Scientific American, the algae can take in three times the carbon dioxide to produce a single ton of ethylene therefore, acting as a carbon sink -- something that takes in more carbon than it gives out.

Traditionally, the process of getting ethylene from oil uses steam cracking, which requires a lot of energy and unsurprisingly, emits a high volume of carbon dioxide in the process -- around 3 tons per ton of ethylene, Scientific American reports.

steam cracking

Yu explained to the publication that his genetically modified algae could solve this problem if it scaled up.

“I think it’s better to turn CO2 into something useful...

"You don’t have to pump CO2 into the ground, and [the products] will last for many years.”

What Yu and his team aim to do now is scale up their process so that algae covered ponds could one day become plastic manufacturing centres. It's a leap of science that could take 10 years, Yu said.

Another hurdle for the researchers to jump over is to ensure that algae production costs, estimated at around $3,000 per ton, will at some point match current prices that fall between $600 to $1,000 per ton of ethylene.