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Tag: economic development

December 2nd, 2016

Interview: Ashton Zeller, Director of Research at Algix

ashton-head-shot

If you’re like most people, you probably don’t associate algae with cutting-edge technology. The thought of algae may call to mind things like pond scum and oceanic dead zones. But, contrary to their lowly reputation, algae are among the most diverse and widespread organisms on the planet, and algae research is fueling some very exciting new research and applications.

Based in Meridian, Mississippi, Algix is one of the companies at the forefront of algae research and commercialization. I spoke with their Director of Research and Development, Ashton Zeller.

 

Tell me a little bit about what you do at Algix and how you got involved with the company.

ZELLER: I got involved with the company back in 2011 when our co-founders Michael Van Drunen and Ryan Hunt decided to spin-off a business to develop an algae-based plastic. They got a Georgia Research Alliance grant from the state of Georgia in order to pursue that business opportunity. So, with the grant and some assistance from the University of Georgia, they started a research program and hired me to lead the research.

I started out with them at the University of Georgia. Today, our research scope has broadened beyond just trying to demonstrate algae-based plastics to focusing on making specific formulations for different customer applications – for example, we have a range of 3D-printer filament. As a company, we focus on algae harvesting, drying, dewatering and collection opportunities because we had to develop our supply chain.

I saw that you have a fish farm in Jamaica. Is that part of the supply chain?

ZELLER: Yes. We acquired that fish farm so that we could have year-round production capability in Jamaica. The long-term goal is to produce fish and produce algae as a byproduct. But we don’t currently operate the farm for algae collection. We’re currently working to stabilize that business for fish production.

What led to the decision to pursue the commercialization of algae-based plastic?

ZELLER: Our chief technology officer, Ryan, came from a bioengineering background and was working on a project at the University of Georgia for making fuels out of algae. They were trying to look at wastewater treatment strategies for algae and trying to produce fuel off that algae, but they were not having a whole lot of success. And what they realized is that it’s really hard to get the algae that produces fuel from competitive strains of algae. They ended up with a lot of protein-rich algae and not a lot of fuel-rich algae. So Ryan, through his relationship with Mike Van Drunen, began working with a professor at UGA to try to make a plastic out of it.

Mike Van Drunen had been working in the packaging industry making packaging machinery for a decade and he realized the potential value of algae’s environmental story and the environmental impact it could have on the packaging sector. So that pushed Ryan to have a significant interest in researching algae-based plastic, and that’s what led Ryan and Mike Van Drunen to start the company.

So you can use a broad range of algae species to produce plastics?

ZELLER: Right. That’s really what made our technology successful since we aren’t limited to specific strains or species to create algae-based plastics. The algae fuel industry has been around for a while and people haven’t demonstrated a lot of success in going that route. And that’s mainly because you do need these specific species and strains. But, for us, as long as we are working with areas that have very nutrient-rich waterways, the most beneficial algae for us are also going to be the fastest-growing algae in those environments. The most competitive algae are also, generally speaking, the most protein-rich algae because those proteins help in the process of growing and cell division for those algae.

What’s the basic process for turning algae into plastics?

ZELLER: It’s very simple in terms of explanation, but very complicated to actually accomplish.

Our process is based on some very old technology. Before the fall of the Ottoman Empire in World War I and the opening of the Middle East for crude oil production to global markets, most plastics were protein-based. Henry Ford’s door liners for his original Model Ts were all made using soy-based plastic. So proteins have a long history of being used for plastics, but they lost out to cheap and readily available crude oil. That’s largely because the crude oil alternatives outperform algae in the sense that they can be easily processed into a bulk material that can take on a variety of shapes. They also have a lot better elongation characteristics than protein-based materials.

The process for turning a high-protein content material into a plastic uses high heat to denature and elongate the proteins so that, when they cool, they form a solid object that’s a grouping of polymer chains rather than folded proteins next to each other.

We more or less took that old process and figured out how to make it work using modern plastic processing technology so that we could blend the algae-based plastics with more conventional materials and deliver products that are competitive in terms of performance and processing ease in the marketplace.

What types of products are you now producing?

ZELLER: Right now, we have two divisions that we own: We have a product called Bloom for the foam market. In that market, we currently have surfboard traction pads. We’re also looking at, in the near future, to be selling those foams for yoga mats and also shoe insoles and midsoles. Those foams really offer a tremendous improvement in the performance of the material.

The 3D printing market is another opportunity. Currently, 3D printing creates a lot of landfill waste because you’re using plastics for typically short-term applications. The algae filament that we produce offers a significant advantage for that market because it biodegrades much faster. It has a better environmental story and a cool, natural aesthetic that you don’t really get in conventional plastics.

We see huge possibilities for algae in those markets. But we’ve also worked with extruders, injection molders, blown film, cast film, blow molding – a very wide range of markets and opportunities for our materials.

How do algae-based plastics compare to traditional plastics in terms of environmental benefits?

ZELLER: Our algae-based plastics that use compostable resin significantly increase the rate of biodegradation. So we have taken materials that could not biodegrade in marine environments and made them marine biodegradable through the addition of algae, which is good for our marine and aquatic environments.

We’ve also shown that the algae can provide a slight nutrient supplementation for agricultural products that need to decompose. So instead of a material just decomposing and providing no benefit to the soil, you have a product that decomposes and provides nitrogen and phosphorus which both enhance plant growth.

In the durable plastic market, we’ve shown significant carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas reductions relative to almost every resin that we’ve compared to our products. In fact, we have not yet put out a resin that doesn’t significantly decrease greenhouse gas emissions. That’s largely due to the algae consuming large amounts of CO2 during its growth cycle and then storing that in the biomass that we are providing to the plastic process.

We’ve had third-party, peer-reviewed, LCAs (life cycle assessments) done which, depending on which resin you’re talking about, show a wide range of positive impacts. Depending on which resin you’re talking about, you see human health impacts, ecosystem impacts and non-renewable resource utilization impacts.

What about the environmental benefits of harvesting algae?

ZELLER: Algae has been really hitting the news over the last several years. As human populations increase and we pollute our waters with more small molecules that feed algae growth, and as global temperatures increase, we’re creating perfect growth conditions for algae. All around the world, you’re seeing algae take over ecosystems and really get out of control.

Most algae blooms are caused by high levels of nitrates, nitrites or ammonia in water and/or high levels of phosphate. Those are important biomolecules that all plants need in order to grow. Those contaminates typically come from over-fertilization of fields somewhere upstream from where the algae bloom is occurring, but those nutrients may end up in our waterways where they feed algae growth. But if we harvest that algae biomass, we’re basically ending the cycle of those nutrients cycling through that ecosystem because, instead of those nutrients being returned to the water through the breakdown of the algae, the nutrients are removed from that ecosystem with the algae biomass.

We work with local governments and wastewater treatment providers – a wide range of people in different areas all over the world – to harvest that algae and make use of it. So we, basically, take that “pond scum,” that annoyance to everybody and make it something that’s useful to them, a viable product that has tremendous environmental benefits.

Do algae-based plastics have any performance benefits?

ZELLER: From a material properties standpoint, you do see some benefits. In injection molding, for example, we’ve been able to show reduced cycle times due to quicker hardening of the material in the mold. With foams, we’ve been able to show increased properties like tear strength, elongation of foam materials which extends the life of foams that need to survive several iterations of being compressed, like a shoe insole or a yoga mat.

For our 3D printing markets, we just had a high school student place pretty highly in the Mississippi state science fair using our algae filaments and showing that algae filaments can be stronger than PLA filaments that you can find and buy on the market. In general, algae is not going to enhance the strength of 3D-printed materials, but it is definitely not being scoffed at in terms of the material properties it can deliver combined with the benefits of enhanced biodegradability and low toxicity. So the benefits to using algae are really myriad and situational. It depends on what market you’re talking about, what the potential benefits might be.

How did Algix come to be located in Meridian?

ZELLER: Our company spent a good bit of time acquiring the ability to tap into these algae blooms, these algae problems around the world. When we first started out with our business and first demonstrated that we really could make an algae plastic, one of the biggest problems that we had was the supply chain. There’s just not enough people out there that are growing large enough quantities of algae for you to be competitive in the plastics market. So what we had to do is really develop the supply chain ourselves.

We built our first production facility in Meridian, Mississippi, because of the algae problems faced by American catfish farmers. Catfish farmers introduce nutrients into their ponds every single day in the form of fish feed. Some of those nutrients don’t get consumed by the fish and they just rot in the pond and create algae problems, and those algae problems can be detrimental. At night, algae consumes oxygen rather than creating oxygen because there’s no light for photosynthesis and that can suffocate fish causing massive fish kills if the farmer doesn’t control it. Meridian just happens to be in the center of the majority of the catfish farms in the United States – I think about 90 to 95 percent of the catfish farms we were aware of are within a 100 mile radius. Since catfish farms are where we started developing our supply chain and developing our technology, Meridian was an ideal location for us.

Related post
Interview: Robert Thompson of the Mississippi Polymer Institute

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July 12th, 2014

Innovation Ambassadors and Fast Forward Mississippi

Fast Forward Card

In order for Mississippi to meet our potential and realize a leading role in the 21st century knowledge-based economy, we believe that we must first be invested in that very potential. In other words, we must believe in our own capabilities and be willing to be our own evangelists. This can begin with something as simple as stirring the conversation.

MWB founded the Mississippi Brain Drain Commission which has worked with partners to develop the Fast Forward Mississippi initiative. This effort is dedicated to stopping the loss of intellectual capital, promoting the next-generation opportunities that exist in our state, and featuring the creativity and innovation that is endemic to our culture.

MS Entreprenurs

CNN Money names Mississippi a top 5 state for entrepreneurs.

Make no mistake, creativity and innovation are embedded in the very fabric that is Mississippi. Our state is the cradle of modern American music. We’ve produced some of the most renown literary figures in American letters. Mississippians have played a leading role in the aerospace industry, media conglomerates, and software companies (just to name a few). However, it is also in our nature to be quite humble and reserved about our resources and accomplishments.

Humility is an admirable quality and certainly has its place. The landscape of 21st century economic development is not one of them. We need to be proud of our accomplishments, bullish on our future, and we need to let everyone know it. Every year we lose some of our best and brightest young people to other areas of the country. In most instances, these are young adults who are products of our public school systems, have attended state colleges or universities, and have studied to be innovators in leading-edge and emerging industries. We have invested in these young people with our tax dollars and values. Simply put, we can’t allow the intellectual capital that we’ve grown to be outsourced.

Yet in many instances, we have no one to blame for this outmigration but ourselves. If we’re not willing to tout our own accomplishments and be confident in our future, why should we expect those with the most potential to remain? This is unacceptable. That’s what Fast Forward Mississippi is focused on changing by being a forum to feature our innovators and creators and to underscore the fact that you can go farther, faster in Mississippi.

Innovation AmbassadorsThe first and often most important step in efforts such as this is starting the conversation – and starting the conversation organically. That’s why Fast Forward has made the call for Innovation Ambassadors. We want to leverage the reach of our social media networks to provide the opportunity to have the conversation we need to have. We’re asking all those who believe in our capabilities of innovation, those who believe in Mississippi’s creative spirit and those who understand that leading the 21st century isn’t just a pipe dream but can be a reality – we’re asking you to show your belief by adding a Fast Forward badge to your personal social media profile picture. You’ll be asked, “What’s that symbol on your pic?” That’s your chance to say,

It means that in Mississippi, we understand what it takes to succeed in the new economy. We don’t focus on investing in businesses or organizations. We don’t focus strictly on industry clusters or market segments. Everything we do in Mississippi is concentrated on investing in talent, innovation, and creativity. We’re doing this and the result is industry, arts, and entrepreneurs that will lead in the 21st century… right here in Mississippi. Watch us go farther, faster.

If you believe we can and should lead, if you believe we have the potential and the people, if you believe in our capacity for creativity and tenacity, then we ask you to be an Innovation Ambassador. If you’re unwilling to accept what some call the inevitability that we’re doomed to fight it out for 49th place, and if you hold the determination to control our own future, then we’re asking you to add the Fast Forward badge to your profile and start telling everyone about the bright future that is the state of Mississippi.

RELATED LINKS

Fast Forward Mississippi

Fast Forward Twitter Feed

Fast Forward Badge

Mississippi Creative Economy

Mississippi Innovation Economy

Innovate Mississippi

February 5th, 2014

Helping raise the tide

Tim Mask, Vice President of Brand Planning & Development at MWB, has published an article at his blog discussing some of the special projects MWB staff are spearheading with support from the agency. These projects revolve around promoting innovation and creativity as economic drivers for Mississippi.

Creative Directors Randy Lynn and Marc Leffler are leading efforts advocating the adoption of digital skill instruction (coding) within our primary education system, and utilizing advertising/graphic arts as a structured program for career planning with at-risk youth. Tim Mask is the founder and current director of the Mississippi Brain Drain Commission, focusing on keeping Mississippi’s intellectual capital in Mississippi.

Check out the article to learn more about how and why an ad agency would be investing in Mississippi’s economic development and enhanced quality of life.

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August 16th, 2013

STEM is great, but STEAM is better

Recently, I’ve heard a lot of talk about how important STEM education (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) is to the future of our country, and how our schools need to put more emphasis on those subjects.

Personally, I agree on the need for STEM, but I believe we need to incorporate arts into the mix. Mississippi needs STEAM. (I didn’t come up with the acronym, but I like it.) I’ll get to the STEM/STEAM discussion later. But, first, I want to tell you a story about one of my biggest failures – and a later brush with greatness.

Let’s rewind the clock to the early 1980s. A time of bad hair, eight-track tapes and my beloved Apple IIe computer.

My mom had been something of an early adopter of the personal computer. She was never very skilled at using a computer. But she knew that computers were going to be a big deal, and she wanted to give her son the advantage of having one at home.

We bought our first Apple computer from a man my mom met through a friend of a friend. We didn’t think it odd that this man’s showroom was in his basement of his house. But, years later, I did have to wonder if he was really an authorized dealer – the serial number on the back of our computer had been filed off. Not a good sign.

Anyway, I loved that computer. And not just the fact that you could stick a 5-1/4 inch floppy disk in it and play Donkey Kong. I liked to program. I’d write simple BASIC language programs that would make my name flash across our amber monochrome CRT. Later, I wrote programs for studying my high school vocabulary words. Yes, I was on my way to becoming a bonafide geek. Ok, here’s the truth: I was a geek before it was cool to be a geek.

So when it came time to go to college, I decided to go to Purdue, where two of my brothers and one of my sisters had gotten their engineering degrees. I planned to enter the new dual-concentration program for electrical and computer engineering since I was pretty decent in math and science. And, although playing guitar was my true love, I knew engineers got good jobs and made good money.

Punk Rock Days

Yes, I thought I was pretty cool. But not cool enough for engineering.

 

It took me a year and a half of college to come to the realization that I was not at all cut out for engineering. I was actually having a great time at college, thanks to the punk rock band I had joined. But I was failing, literally, as an engineering student.

Fortunately, I had a backup plan. After taking an advertising class as an elective, I was inspired to go into that field and become a copywriter.

Now, 25 years later in the Internet era, technology has become a big part of modern marketing. I feel like I had a bit of a head start thanks to my background. But, the convergence of my interests in art and technology was purely a coincidence. Back in my school days, I viewed science and the arts as mutually exclusive. You were either an artist or a scientist. There was no in between.

Now I know that I was dead wrong. The arts teach creativity, and creativity is the engine that drives innovation. When art and science work together, amazing things happen.

Another flashback. During my college days at Purdue, there was a mechanical engineering professor named Aldo Giorgini. I knew him because his kids, Mass and Flav, played in a punk rock band, Rattail Grenadier. Forget the stereotypes – the Giorgini brothers were punk rock entrepreneurs.

Their father, Aldo, was the kind of guy you never forget. You could usually find him at Mass’s club, Spud Zero, when their band played, somewhere in the back of the club by the sound board. He always had a big smile on his face, a fatherly hand on your shoulder and a funny story. I admired him for his loyalty to his sons and his constant support. He was very proud of them despite the unconventional career path they had chosen.

It wasn’t until a few years ago that I discovered that this humble, soft-spoken professor was an accomplished artist, too. He had been formally trained by the Italian futurist Ambrogio Casati and had worked to restore classic works of art that were damaged during World War II. He studied the arts and engineering, together, eventually earning a doctorate in Mechanical Engineering and then, later, traveling to the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar. While in the U.S., he earned his second doctorate, a Ph.D. in Civil Engineering.

During the 1970s, while teaching at Purdue, Aldo rekindled his interest in art and became became a pioneer in the field of computer graphics, using a process he called “computer aided art.” Giorgini developed a Fortran program that ran on the University’s mainframe computer that generated his art. He would then print his creations onto Mylar sheets and apply ink by hand. A number of his works are now in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian Institution.

I had no idea.

Regrettably, I never got the opportunity to talk to Aldo about his art before he died in 1994. I have no doubt it would have been a fascinating conversation.

Aldo Giorgini with his computer aided art.

 

Fortunately, Aldo left us with some words about technology and the arts, which I believe are still very relevant today:

“To be technical and scientific does not preclude a concern for the beauty and art of image and form. Architecture and engineering both occupy the same continuum: mathematics can be beautiful, and shapes can be useful.”

I want to add a few last details about what happened to Aldo’s kids, Mass (bass guitar) and Flav (lead guitar) of Rattail Grenadier:

Mass Giorgini played in a number of respected punk bands throughout the 1990s and went on to become a record producer for bands that have included Rise Against, Anti-Flag and Alkaline Trio. Dr. Flaviano Giorgini is a lecturer in the highly esteemed genetics program at the University of Leicester, in England, where he leads a research group studying neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s Disease and Parkinson’s Disease.

Not too shabby for a couple of punk rockers.

July 17th, 2013

Mississippi’s Creative Economy – First Twitter Forum 7/25

MS Creative

Thursday, July 25 2013, 7pm – 8pm CST. The inaugural Twitter forum sponsored by Mississippi’s Creative Economy will be held 7/25 at 7PM and feature visionary technology executive Bruce Deer as the special guest experts. Topics will focus on Mississippi’s role as a leader in emerging technologies, and how a culture of innovation is helping Mississippi leap forward in the new knowledge economy. Follow @MsCreativeEcon and use #msCreative to track the conversation and contribute. Please contact me if you would like further details.

Mississippi’s Creative Economy is a forum for sharing information about, and promoting Mississippi’s role as a leader in technology, creativity, and innovation within the context of driving economic development. The forum is a service of Maris, West & Baker.

Bruce Deer is a visionary and progressive executive for companies with national and international operations with a focus on emerging business opportunities. Bruce has extensive experience in strategic planning, business development, product development, technical operations, engineering, software and systems development, management consulting, and development of consumer products and services. Bruce as served as as Chief Executive Officer/President for a number of prominent Mississippi technology and communications firms, including Spread Networks, Neopolis Technologies, Origin Technologies, and SkyTel.

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