Tackling plastic pollution and restoring oceans with material ingenuity

Agilent Technologies Australia Pty Ltd

Wednesday, 19 July, 2023

Tackling plastic pollution and restoring oceans with material ingenuity

It is estimated that more than 75% of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced over the last 65 years have turned into waste, of which up to 13 million metric tons end up in our oceans every year.1,2 Organisations like ULUU are trying to solve the growing issue of plastic pollution by prototyping alternative materials to market.

“Unlike synthetic plastics, our materials are not produced using petrochemicals derived from fossil fuels. Instead, they are made from sustainable feedstocks with much more sustainable production processes. And, in the end, our products are compostable and marine-biodegradable, so they don’t pose a lasting impact on the environment,” described Dr Luke Richards, lead scientist at ULUU.

Dr Julia Reisser and Michael Kingsbury started ULUU in 2020, with the unique company name invented by the co-CEOs. ULUU’s goal is to replace traditional plastics with a clean, sustainable process. Laboratory operations started in mid-2021 with four people, and has since grown to a team of 17 running the production line, R&D work and quality control lab. It’s also in the process of building a pilot plant, which will be online soon.

The mission at ULUU is to tackle the ever-growing issue of plastic pollution. Using seaweed as a sustainable resource, ULUU is producing a versatile natural polymer called polyhydroxalkanoates (PHA). The material is functionally similar to traditional plastics, with the major benefit that it is also biodegradable and won’t accumulate in oceans and landfills or linger as microplastics in biological systems.

The environmental benefits of ULUU’s innovative material are also evident throughout its production process due to using seaweed as a feedstock. Seaweed farming captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and doesn’t rely on conventional land-based farming, which can take land away from natural ecosystems. Also, research indicates that seaweed helps our oceans by cleaning up environmental pollutants and reversing acidification and eutrophication.3–5 So, farming seaweed not only absorbs greenhouse gases to mitigate climate change, but also helps to restore the health of our oceans.

“It’s an exciting, fast-paced environment. We’ve gone from experimenting with small amounts of seaweed at the lab bench to now producing PHA at a kilogram scale in our small production facility. And, we’ll be increasing this significantly in a few months once our pilot plant is fully commissioned. So, it’s been a series of quick milestones,” Richards said.

Engineering a sustainable solution to plastic pollution

ULUU produces its PHA material in bioreactors ranging from 1 to 50 L. It also uses specialised equipment to investigate injection moulding and turning PHA into solid objects for prototyping. The entire production process from seaweed input to the finished PHA powder is monitored by its QC lab, in which most assays use chromatography instruments. These instruments include two liquid chromatographs (LCs) and one gas chromatograph (GC).

“Our chromatography instruments enable us to monitor and improve our entire production process. From the first input, we perform a biochemical analysis of the seaweed to analyse carbohydrates, as well as other compounds. We also use the instruments to measure nutrients in the fermentation broth, which is the medium that we feed to the microbes to produce PHA — it’s a key QC step in our production,” Richards explained.

Dr Luke Richards loading QC samples into an Agilent 1260 Infinity II LC.

He continued, “We monitor how the process is going throughout fermentation and production of the polymer. We measure the sugar consumption in the medium that’s fed to the microbes and the PHA content within the cells. And, at the end of the fermentation process, we use the instruments again to measure the purity of the product and the composition and molecular weight of the polymer. Our LCs and GC are critical from start to finish.”

The chromatography instruments are also necessary to ULUU’s R&D processes. They are used to optimise ULUU’s fermentation process, assessing different hydrolysis methods and fermentation strategies.

Helping ULUU further its sustainability goals

Knowing the resource-intensive nature of laboratory environments, a current trend in the scientific community is to assess the environmental impact of laboratory equipment. One example is Agilent, which has partnered with My Green Lab to have select instruments independently audited. The audit and verification results in My Green Lab’s ACT (accountability, consistency, transparency) label, which details the environmental impact of an instrument’s entire product life cycle, from manufacturing and shipping to use and end of life.

“With our mission to improve the quality of the environment, it’s important that we keep our environmental impact as low as possible throughout our operations, including our analytical lab. The instruments are heavily used in — and essential for — our R&D and production line. So, it’s great to have transparency around the environmental impact of our instruments,” Richards explained.

ULUU scientists Dr Sheik Md Moniruzzaman and Vatsal Meshram in their QC lab using an Agilent 1260 Infinity II LC with Agilent InfinityLab LC/MSD iQ.

ULUU plans to be independently audited for its own sustainability soon. Building its analytical lab around ACT-labelled solutions was an easy and important step towards this. With high-throughput sample analysis on a day-to-day basis, it will significantly contribute to its overall sustainability assessment.

Looking into the future with ULUU

To compete with fossil fuel plastics, ULUU is working to improve process efficiency. Its R&D is currently focused on increasing the PHA yield from as little seaweed as possible to get their material price to a competitive level.

ULUU also wishes to expand the versatility of its PHA material.

“We want our product to be used for an extensive range of applications. From solid objects to textile fibres and flexible films, this will allow us to replace all types of fossil fuel plastic with materials that are better for the environment,” Richards said.

Luke Richards, PhD, lead scientist, ULUU

Luke has a PhD in biochemical engineering from the University of Melbourne and a bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and bioprocess engineering. Luke’s research experience involves the application of microbes for pharmaceutical production. He has also worked as a process engineer in the dairy industry.

  1. Geyer, R.; Jambeck, J.R.; Law, K.L. Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made. Science Advances 2017, 3 (7), e1700782. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.1700782
  2. Jambeck, J.R.; Geyer, R.; Wilcox, C.; Siegler, T.R.; Perryman, M.; Andrady, A.; Narayan, R.; Law, K.L. Plastic waste inputs from land into the ocean. Science 2015, 347 (6223), 768–771. DOI: 10.1126/science.1260352
  3. The remarkable power of Australian kelp - BBC Future (accessed 2023-05-26).
  4. Froehlich, H. et al., Blue Growth Potential to Mitigate Climate Change through Seaweed Offsetting. Current Biology 2019, 29 (18), 3087–3093. DOI.org/10.1016/j.cub.2019.07.041
  5. Behera, D. et al. Seaweeds cultivation methods and their role in climate mitigation and environmental cleanup. Total Environment Research Themes 2022, volumes 3–4. DOI.org/10.1016/j.totert.2022.100016
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