What was the biggest breakthrough for you in this project?
Discovering how much cellulose was in the algae was our biggest breakthrough. Our Cladophora algae species has up to 70 per cent cellulose in its cell wall, this is much more than for example the Eucalyptus tree has (up to 45 per cent).
What applications do you see for the fibre in the future?
As I mentioned, fashion is indeed the highest challenge for its volume and wearability are so specific and technically challenging. But developing any fibre based on cellulose is a good addition to the textile producing industry. In my opinion, cellulose is the bio-polymer of the future and current research by many specialists in a wide variety of fields will unlock its potential in the coming decade.
What is the biggest challenge you are facing with the project at the moment?
We are confident in the technology, and I think this will solidify in the coming years. My biggest current challenge is mapping out the entire value chain. Where do you get all this algae; how does it grow; is there enough to support large scale production; how is it harvested?
I love to solve these questions for they are what makes or breaks this future material. Explorations in cellulose are plentiful, but finding the right material to extract it in a sensible and affordable way is, in my opinion, the biggest challenge. So, by far the challenges in my project are how to start up the upstream part of the value chain. To do this, we plan to start a small scale harvest in China, with local farmers (from that moment onwards they will be algae farmers) and at a very local scale. If it works there, I am confident I can make it work on the bigger scale. Also, this experience will give me crucial data for the life-cycle assessment (LCA) analysis I have planned. The LCA analysis will determine whether making filament, and eventually yarn, from algae-based cellulose is truly a good idea.
What impact can this project have, if you succeed?
Algae are such an important part of the global carbon flux, these organisms absorb large parts of CO2 and produce in their peak seasons staggering amounts of oxygen. Retrieving their cellulose is a fantastic renewable system. It is, in any case, not a linear system such as petro chemistry.
Besides that, as I mentioned, it is all about how to accumulate the algae. In my mind, this is going to be most successful in an agricultural setting, with farmers in coastal or tidal communities growing and harvesting the Cladophora algae and drying it. If this matter of collection is possible, the value chain is super-sustainable and can contribute to a stable regional resource for many communities.
Are there companies that have shown interest in an industrial use of it?
This is all in an early stage, and I am very careful with making any big promises. It is up to me to prove it is viable and sustainable. Of course, there is much attention for this type of innovation, but it has little value in the lab stage; only when you have successfully passed a medium scale implementation in the field does it work. I take my own time-being one of the winners of the GCA gives me the opportunity to check, double check and expedite my plans, which is great; but for now, let's be humble and first do the field tests! But yes, of course I am a firm believer of algae being the future commodity for our fashion industry.
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