Scott Fulbright: Is Algae the Ink of the Future? at TEDxMileHigh (Full Transcript)

I sat down to write a talk about sustainability, but then I heard an airplane. I became curious about where it took off from, where it was going, and why do only some airplanes leave white streaks behind them. As I’m thinking this, I look over at my two-year-old son, and he’s pointing up at the plane. That’s when I realized I have the curiosity of a two-year-old.

And having the curiosity of a two-year-old comes with some unique challenges. When I was in high school, I took the ACT exam, and the proctor said, “Please use a number-two pencil and begin.” All of my peers dropped their head and started filling in the little bubbles. I sat there, and I got curious about what’s the difference between a number-one and a number-two pencil.

I started thinking about nylon. What’s it made out of, and why is it so loud? Why do humans start to twitch when we get nervous? And most importantly, why does the girl behind me with the nervous twitch have nylon swoosh pants on? For six hours, all I heard was, “Shh, shh, shh, shh.” It’s times like this that I’ve had to contain my curiosity. I must’ve done OK because I got into college.

In my first year there, all my friends got internships in marketing and finance, but not me. I wanted to do Marine Biology – in the middle of Michigan. There’s no whales, dolphins, or sea turtles, but there is algae. You know, algae; the plant-like organism that grows in rivers and lakes? I became curious about algae, and I got an internship as an algal biologist. I quickly learned two things – one: algae are fascinating organisms that influence our everyday life; and two: girls at college parties loved talking about algae.

So maybe I didn’t impress any girls by being an algal biologist, but I did become intrigued with the world of algae. Like plants, algae use carbon dioxide and sunlight to produce oxygen. So I want you to do me a favor. I’m going to count to three, and we’re all going to take a big inhale, and then exhale. Ready? One, two, three. (Inhaling) (Exhaling) Over half the oxygen you just inhaled was produced from algae. Over half; that’s insane! It’s literally keeping us alive.

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Algae grow everywhere: on your shoes, in your dog’s water bowl, definitely in your local ponds, and on the back of this sloth. Sorry, I just like to throw a sloth slide in when I can. Algae are the foundation of the aquatic ecosystem, and they come in a variety of colors. The brown, the red, and the green are just different species of algae.

Here’s the coolest part: algae grow really fast; so fast that scientists are trying to domesticate algae for products like biofuels and animal feed. This is a picture of a large open pond that’s growing algae cells. The algae cells are extracted from the water to be made into these products. These bioproducts have a huge potential to make the world much more sustainable, and it’s currently undergoing commercialization. I wanted to play a part of this commercialization, so I went to Colorado State University, and I got my PhD in the Cell and Molecular Biology program. I spent thousands of hours in the office and in the laboratory researching algae growth projects for commercialization.

Then, on a summer day in 2013, I was in the algae research laboratory and my wandering mind got away from me, and I realized it was my grandma’s birthday. My grandma likes a good greeting card, so I had to run out of the laboratory to the local grocery store, and I got stuck in this greeting card aisle. I became curious about what’s a greeting card? It’s just paper and ink.

But what’s ink? I looked all around me, and I realized every product, package, and sign was covered in ink. So what is ink? Ink is 80% petroleum products. Petroleum comes from places like tar sands operations where vegetation is stripped so that oil can be extracted from the earth. This devastates entire ecosystems. The other 20% of ink are pigments.

Pigments are often minerals that are mined from the earth. Sometimes, they can be petroleum. For example, carbon black is the pigment that makes your printer ink at home black, and it’s a known carcinogen. So not only is ink toxic and unsustainable, it’s the most expensive liquid we buy. If you do the math about your printer ink at home, it’s about 10,000 dollars a gallon. My curiosity kept me learning about ink. What was most fascinating to me was that a traditional ink pigment is about the same size as an algae cell. That’s when I first realized, “Could we use algae as a sustainable ink replacement?”

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Talk about curiosity overdrive. Within three months, my best friend from graduate school and I started a company developing and commercializing algae ink products. Believe it or not, algae worked really great as an ink. And, like I mentioned earlier, algae come in a variety of colors. There’s blues, reds, yellows, and so on. Nature’s already developed these cells and these colors; we’re just developing new methods to use them.

So how do we turn algae into ink? We grow algae in these controlled containers. We then harvest the cells, meaning that we concentrate them down, and then we add plant-based components to make the ink formula. Then we can print on paper, cardboard, and even cotton textiles. So we’re not extracting finite, toxic materials from the earth; we’re using carbon dioxide and sunlight to literally grow our pigments for the most sustainable ink in the world. Our ink is 100% biodegradable, meaning that if you put it in your compost pile, it would degrade in a matter of days. The ink that’s on your agenda right now will never degrade.

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