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Futuristic Paints Look Brighter and Greener

Algae used in paints is not altogether new, but advances in research are paving the way for greener paints in the future. New breakthroughs in biotechnology mean that microalgae could soon be used to produce cheaper, eco-friendly paints, cosmetics, fabrics, and even holograms used on credit cards.

The tiny creature behind the latest innovation is a minute single-celled marine diatom that evolved millions of years ago. The diatom has a tough protectiv iridescent silica shell that contains a complex array of microscopic perforations. These tiny holes interfere with light wave reflection, producing multiple reflections that glow brightly and change color depending on the angle it is viewed from.

Scientists have now discovered how to effectively grow these diatoms in a controlled laboratory, offering enormous potential for scaling up production for commercial use in industries such as paint manufacture, cosmetics and fabrics. These qualities could be incorporated to produce magnificent color-changing effects that could be used in the manufacture of creative iridescent garments that shimmer and shine. They could also be used to produce credit-card holograms that would be very difficult to forge.

While it is currently possible to produce consumer goods that have these properties, this can only be achieved by creating minute artificial reflectors through energy intensive industrial processes. However, farming microalgae diatoms and harvesting their shells will allow us to tap into a natural resource that could provide an energy-efficient alternative. This will not only reduce electricity costs, but also reduce carbon dioxide emissions associated with energy production.

This ground-breaking research has been pioneered by scientists from the Natural History Museum and the University of Oxford in the UK. According to project leader, Professor Andrew Parker, the process is not only extremely efficient, but also cost effective and offers environmental benefits too. Less carbon dioxide is produced during production and because the shells are organic, they are completely biodegradable so will readily decompose at the end of their useful life.

Furthermore, production is very quick, with one diatom producing 100 million diatom cells within a month when conditions are favorable. It is estimated that starting with just a few diatom cells, a laboratory could produce up to 1 tons of diatoms per day in this manner, and within two years could be producing at an industrial scale.

In another study on the use of algae for paint production conducted by scientists from Wageningen University in The Netherlands, researchers suggest that the sugars and fatty acids produced during this rapid growth phase are also suitable for use in paints and lacquers. Furthermore, once the fatty acid have been extracted from the culture, the biomass produced can be used for biofuel production.

At present, paints, lacquers and other coatings are produced from plant or mineral oils, both of which are being rapidly depleted due to over exploitation. Due to the depletion of these resources and the carbon emissions that their production generates, paint production using algae offers a much greener alternative. They reproduce extremely rapidly -- in favorable conditions they can double their biomass in one day -- and they absorb and store carbon in the process.

By mass producing these tiny creatures we can basically let nature work for us to produce paints and other consumer goods, while at the same time utilizing the waste products for biofuel. Cultivating plankton for paint and other products not only reduces carbon emissions, but actually absorbs and stores carbon in the process. In terms of the economic and environmental benefits it's win-win all around.

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