By: Milton Skirgård, Ibrahim Taha, Johan Klum, Linnéa Thelén

Agar plasticity, the future in materials

 

Research project

Agar Plasticity is a current material research project. In this project scientists are investigating the potential usefulness of agar as an alternative material to synthetic plastics. It’s very common that goods are wrapped in plastic material while being shipped. As soon as they are unwrapped, the shipments become waste or are collected to be recycled. When you have the raw materials and all the energy that is needed for processing in mind you realise that this situation is unsustainable.

 

Environmental issues

In 2012, more than 36% of all packaging materials were plastics and 288 million tons of plastics were produced all over the world. But synthetic plastics do not biodegrade. This is one of the main motivations for this project. To predict an effective and sustainable development of natural resources is more important than ever and has become more and more necessary through the years.  To challenge this seemingly ignored problem.

 

By: Milton Skirgård

Traditionally, agar is consumed as food in Japan and often as an ingredience in sweets. Medical and scientific fields also uses it worldwide. It can be sold in dried state in form of block, flake and powder. Block agar shows porous, feathery structure and compared to its volume it’s very light. These characteristics led to scientists starting to explore its possibility as packaging material.

Environmentally friendly

Its raw material is seaweed – precisely, it consits of two kinds of algae, which can grow and be harvested worldwide. Agar can be extracted if the red algae is being boiled. The scientists have been working on three different material experiments. Pure agar powder was the first material to do experiments on. Next was combining agar powder with an extracted red algae fibre. Last the scientists mixed agar powder with shell ash. Shell ash is also a product of waste from the food industry.

Through many experiments, scientists have succeed with producing a thin transparent film, loose-fill cushioning and a package with merged cushioning using only powdered agar. Either in a traditional or industrial way, agar production produces very big amounts of red algae waste, and disposal is expensive for the manufacturer.

 

Manufacturing

Thanks to research, scientists found out that using the left over fibres of agar extraction as fertiliser is the only way of using it again. The extracted fibre still has lots of minerals in it even after the extraction process, so local farmers can get or buy it. Even so, most of it is not put to use yet, so the scientists are searching for alternative ways of reusing it.

With different amounts of agar respective algae, different hardnesses and thicknesses can be achieved. For example, this complex material can be used as wrapping for flowers, or moulded to make boxes, or as cushioned packaging for plant pots and wine bottles. Another serious environmental issue is shell waste produced by food industry. Tons of shell are being put away as waste, everyday. This is resulting in very high disposal costs for farmers.

By: Milton Skirgård

It’s not able to form a mixture of water and shell ash alone, but when adding agar, the composite becomes moldable. It can be moulded into advanced shapes, or it has a potential to be extruded even industrially. Scientists think that it could be utilised as a material for building, like a wall tile.

All of those products are made using agar as the main ingredient. After use, the agar products can be disposed of in a friendly way for the environment.

When disposing of these, all of them can be used as a material improving waterretention of dirt or as fertiliser with well water-retention, because agar absorbs and holds water very well, or should they end up in the ocean or landfill, they would not be harmful to the environment, to other lives. The agar simply biodegrades.

So far, manufacturers have produced a selection of products and packaging using the amazing plasticity of agar. Ultimately, scientists are envisioning to replace plastic products like shopping bag, cable tie, toothbrush, cutlery, ballpoint pen, etc..