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Write Messages That Morph Over Time With Sustainable Algae-Based Ink

Two entrepreneurs are creating an interactive print product with their living, time-lapse ink.

It’s hard to make money selling algae biofuels–at least for now. So after working with a series of startups struggling to make fuel from algae, one researcher decided to make something completely different: time-lapse ink.

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“It’s just a much more fun product than biofuels or DNA sequencing of genomes of algae strains,” says Scott Fulbright, who co-founded Living Ink with fellow scientist Steve Albers.

And it’s a way to make a product that’s ready for the market immediately, unlike many algae bio-products that have been in development for more than a decade.

Fulbright’s epiphany came at Whole Foods when he was buying a birthday card for his 90-year-old grandmother. “I bought a card that was about $12,” he says. “I’m not that artsy of a person and had never really considered myself that creative. But I just sat there in the Whole Foods aisle and had that a-ha moment: I could use algae as a sustainable ink.”

The startup’s first product uses living algae in an ink that morphs over time, revealing hidden messages as it grows.

“Usually you get a greeting card, and you put it on the refrigerator or throw it away,” he says. “We tried to add something that’s a little bit more interactive.”

The company also plans to make educational kits for kids–coloring books that come with living ink to teach lessons about biology.

“In the end, what we’re going to send out is basically a sexy-looking petri dish,” he says. “We’re tricking kids into thinking, ‘Oh, I can write messages and I can be funny,’ but you’re using science, you’re using algae to do it.”

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On a larger scale, they’re also working on a sustainable alternative for traditional ink, which is typically made with petroleum. Even soy-based inks can have soy content as low as 7% and contain heavy metals, along with other environmental issues.

“Soy is not necessarily the best in terms of the water and carbon dioxide that’s used in the lifecycle,” he says, explaining that algae, which grows quickly with few resources, is a better option. “The cells that we grow divide every 20 minutes. It’s a super renewable ink.”

After the algae finish growing, they leave a permanent print on paper. While the ink naturally fades after time in sunlight, the researchers are working on a coating that can protect the pigment. They plan to bring it to market for packaging companies to print on boxes. The first color is green, but algae also naturally come in cyan, magenta, and even black. “Nature’s provided us a color palette to work with,” he says.

“The end goal is we want it to be like any other ink.”

Living Ink is crowdfunding its first pen on Kickstarter.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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