Carbon black, ink, algae. What do these three things have in common? According to Scott Fulbright, the CEO of Living Ink, they’re all things no one really thinks about — or, really cares about, for that matter.
Living Ink, a company that develops a renewable bio-based carbon-negative pigment, grounded on the thesis that most ink isn’t biodegradable or compostable at the moment. To tackle the problem, Living Ink is creating black ink, plastics, rubbers, and other polymers while making them potentially safer to use and better for the environment.
“Right now, if you look around wherever you’re sitting right now, and see anything that’s black, all of that black colorant from a chemical pigment called carbon black,” he said.
Those materials are made from petroleum or oil. And not only is carbon black non-renewable, but it’s also possibly carcinogenic.
I sat down with Fulbright to learn more and we discussed the sustainability challenges around petroleum-derived ink products that you and me use today and how Living Ink is thinking about ink differently. Oh, and how algae of all things can surprisingly play an important role.
First of all, the idea of algae-based products isn’t totally unheard of. Earlier this year, Kanye West announced plans for algae-based Yeezys. Algae can also present in popular commercial products like cosmetics, fertilizer, and nutritional supplements.
It starts with waste algae. Groups like algae farms will grow algae, and then extract a blue molecule used in the natural food colorant industry. Living Ink then processes it, refines it, and turns it black.
One reason algae works so well is that they’re already super small cells. And Fulbright says a key to making good pigment is small particle size. This helps save energy for processing. According to Forbes, algae grow 10 times faster than other land-dwelling plants. It also requires a tenth of the land needed to produce create an equivalent amount of biomass.
Additionally, one of the biggest issues with bio-based black products is that they always turn out grayish or brown. But, Fulbright says Living Ink has achieved a “truly jet black colorant.” Currently, it’s also able to produce large amounts of green ink. In the future, Living Ink hopes to also develop a cyan, magenta, yellow, and black color palette to mix and make different colors. But, Fulbright notes, this is pretty high level.
When algae grow, all the green biomass produced is created using atmospheric CO2. So, this means it captures CO2 from the atmosphere to grow. By taking this material and performing a thermal treatment, Fulbright says it locks up that carbon for over 100 years. Thus, the material is carbon negative.
“It’s fun knowing that people can use a product that actually helped reduce climate change versus helping climate change continue down the road it’s on,” he told us.
Over the past year, there’s been a huge push for sustainable packaging from major companies like Hasbro. Similarly, the fashion industry has been taking steps to be more environmentally friendly and ethical after some backlash in the past. Fulbright says this is driven by two factors. One, companies are driven to achieve sustainability metrics. Secondly, it’s an excellent marketing opportunity.
“From my experience with brands, everyone is trying to tell an innovative eco story that’s better than their competitor,” Fulbright said. “And they’re trying to use both sustainable and innovative materials.”
Although many companies within these industries are adopting more eco-friendly practices, these efforts become nearly obsolete if a certain ink is added.
“You can have a 100% organic cotton shirt, and then you slap a black logo or picture on the front or any other color,” he said. “All you’re doing is slapping more petroleum on to the front of it.”
But of course, when it comes to entering uncharted territory, challenges are inevitable. For Living Ink, this included funding and creating a functional product.
“We were bootstrapping it and using a lot of sweat equity. Just doing everything we could to make things work on a shoestring budget of grad students,” Fulbright said. “So, one of the things that really saved us was getting the National Science Foundation Small Business grant. That really was a turning point for us early on.”
Additionally, creating a functional product with algae proved to be a challenge. Compared to carbon black, which has been around for decades, there was no solidified or controlled process. So, surveying different algae sources and understanding algae processing was another step to overcome. Not to mention, the printer has to also be able to use the ink, and it must stay colorful and water-resistant over time.
Some of Fulbright’s proudest moments with Living Ink include seeing their first print and finding their product at an REI. From plant-breeding robots to planet intelligence software, it’s clear that innovation and creativity are essential in finding climate solutions. But, creating innovative ideas in the lab was the easy part, so it seems. For Fulbright, actually getting their ink into consumers’ products was the greatest reward.
Recently, Living Ink did a project with Patagonia, one of the first big brands to “test the waters.” This, Fulbright says, has opened up a lot of other opportunities for the company. As Living Ink navigates its way around Covid-19, Fulbright says the company has been taking this time organizing, planning partnerships, and trying to scale up.
“The reason I love algae stories is that it makes people think. One thing is, what is ink? We’ve talked to brand managers at pretty big companies who don’t really even know what ink is. That’s because it’s always the printer that deals with ink,” Fulbright said.
With this eco-story, their goal is to enlighten people on the supply chain and offer some creative inspiration. They’ve also recently developed a small “A” logo for algae ink that can go next to the recycling symbol on products.
“If I sent you a sample, you could touch that ink and know the material you’re touching was literally grown with sunlight in California,” he adds. “I think capturing people’s imagination on the innovation side of things is also big. There are a lot of companies doing what we’re doing. Not necessarily in algae ink, but just kind of using biomaterials to make things. And I think there’s a huge future.”