How 2 CSU scientists are turning pond scum into a $5.5K per gallon commodity

by Anthony Sodd
July 23, 2015


Two PhD grads from Colorado State University are aiming to turn the scum you wash out of your fish tank into liquid gold. The duo have figured out a way to turn algae (not necessarily the kind found in your fish bowl) into a marketable ink that would actually be an improvement over the stuff you take for granted now. Their company, Living Ink Technologies, has, in essence, figured out how to grow money.

Ok, so ink is not a new substance. Its existence can be traced all the way back to China in the 23rd century BC, and humans have been using it ever since. You’d think that in all that time we, as a species, would pretty much have the art of ink production down — but it turns out there’s a lot of room left for improvement.

All these years later ink is still one of the most expensive liquids in the world, coming in at over $5.5 thousand a gallon. To put that into perspective, the price per barrel of oil is hovering at around $48 a barrel, and there are 42 gallons in a barrel. What’s more, modern ink often comes from unsustainable sources and most of the stuff is actually toxic to humans.

Ok, but can algae ink really be a viable alternative? Well, Living Ink has come up with two different types of algae ink.

The first type utilizes dead algae cells and ends up being pretty similar to the ink you’re familiar with, only it’s made from dead algae. Unless you own a microscope and a biology degree, you won’t know the difference. It can be used in a pen, poured into refillable inkjet cartridges, or used for just about whatever else you use ink for.

The second type of ink they’ve created is far more intriguing, because it’s still alive. It is like coloring with a living thing, or maybe gardening on paper. Basically, the ink goes on wet and clear, and several days later the ink grows into the paper. It will then die and leave colored ink permanently behind. Pretty neat, right?

The company is still in its infancy and you can’t actually buy any of their products yet. That said, they’ve received some pretty impressive accolades to date. Living Ink won the Jake Jabs Business Plan Competition, took second place in the Blue Oceans Challenge, and won the Department of Energy’s regional pitch competition.

While the company declined to give me a quote for a gallon of algae ink, they did say they were pretty confident Living Ink would be competitively priced given the competition's absurdly high prices. What’s more, since the algae is naturally grown, it is pretty much infinitely sustainable and nontoxic.

The company will be launching a Kickstarter in September, and supporters will be able to take home both types of ink and play with them themselves.


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