Ink researchers find magic in algae

There has been a lot of talk about sustainable ink lately, which mostly referred to soy-based inks. Now, Living Ink is taking a radically different approach with inks made from algae. And: Some of the inks disappear and reappear when exposed to sunlight, allowing for designs with a touch of magic.

There has been a lot of talk about sustainable ink lately, which mostly referred to soy-based inks. Now, a start-up called Living Ink from Fort Collins, Colorado, is taking a radically different approach. Its inks are made from algae. And: Some of the inks disappear and reappear when exposed to sunlight, allowing for designs with a touch of magic.

Scott Fulbright, co-founder and CEO of Living Ink, has long been fascinated by algae. His interest was sparked when he was working in an algae ecology laboratory as an undergraduate. “My friends thought I was weird, but the more I was exposed to at the job, the more I really enjoyed it and realized how influential algae is”, he remembers. Fulbright decided to focus his PhD work on algae. He then spent 10 years in the algae bioproducts industry, where he led research and development projects in both industry and academia. His research was directed at understanding the scale-up process in algae cultivation for biofuels and bioproducts.

living-ink6

During his work, Fulbright realized that algae had many characteristics that would make them well suited for ink. There are naturally occurring strains of algae with different colors such as yellow, red, orange and blue. Additionally, algae can be coaxed into changing colors either by exposing them to environmental stresses or through bioengineering. Since algae grow fast, they are renewable and don’t compete with food, which is the case, for example, with soy. Since the algae cells used by Fulbright and co-founder Steve Albers are really small, they are well suited for printing.

Living Ink is currently working on methods to print algae cells with traditional printers; the algae specialists are also teaming up with a company to develop sustainable packaging inks using algae cells.

living-ink4

While more research is needed to produce algae ink for printers on a commercial scale, there is one algae ink product that has captured the imagination of the founders, the team, and the Kickstarter community: The Living Ink pen that reveals what people write, draw, sketch or paint over several days. With a few days to go, the Kickstarter campaign has resulted in almost 60,000 USD in funding, four times as much as Living Ink originally aimed for.

living-ink

The idea for the time-lapse bio ink came from an observation in the lab. While Fulbright was researching and developing sustainable algae ink to replace regular ink found in everyday printers something unexpected happened—the ink changed from one day to the next. The observation was interesting but at first, Fulbright had no plans for turning this observation into a product. That changed when Fulbright was shopping for his grandmother’s birthday in July 2013. He thought of a birthday card with algae ink that could reveal messages and festive drawings over time. “It was pretty cool that first day driving home knowing that we were on to something really fun and potentially with high impact”, he says. Since then, Living Ink has raised more than 100,000 USD of funding through business pitch competitions including The United States Department of Energy, SXSW, University of Colorado, Colorado State University, and the Blue Ocean Enterprise Challenge.

living-ink5

Living Ink uses living algae cells and cyanobacteria for its Living Ink Pen. The cells are diluted in the liquid and can’t be seen by the human eye. What the ink is exposed to sunlight, the cells multiply and become so dense that they become visible to the human eye and the writing or drawing reveals itself. Living Ink has manufactured two kinds of pens, one with ‘slow’ ink, with a lower density of cells and one with ‘fast ink’ with a higher cell density in addition to special watercolors for artists. The pens come with special paper and a closed glass frame that serves as a greenhouse. Even after the algae cells have died, the drawings remain intact. The company expects to start shipping the Living Ink Pens in mid-2016.

living-ink2

While the color changing drawings are fun, Fulbright and his colleagues have a larger goal in mind. “A priority is that we make the pens cheap enough that Living Ink gets into schools so kids will get exposed to fun science,” Fulbright says. And who knows, maybe the algae ink pens will inspire a few kids to start researching sustainable inks during their years at school for the next generation of green printed products.