It takes a special type of person to get excited about algae. But spend a few minutes with Director of the Climate Change Cluster (C3) and founder of the Deep Green Biotech Hub Peter Ralph and it’s easy to see why he’s so passionate about the potential for this ‘green gold’.
“There are six million barrels of oil a day used for making plastics,” explains Peter. “We could, in principle, replace all of that and leave the oil in the ground.”
He says, the strength of algae lies in its simplicity. These single cell organisms are responsible for more than 50 per cent of the oxygen we breathe. They strip carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and have a biochemical structure that can be manipulated for use in a huge variety of processes and products.
“You can use algae to make cosmetics, paints, plastics, livestock feed, human food, pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals. The number of industries that algae can be used as a raw material for is virtually as wide as your imagination,” adds Peter.
All this from a man who less than 10 years ago thought algae biofuels were “a complete crock”.
However, his ferocious opposition to the technology was challenged by former Dean of Science Professor Bruce Milthorpe, and it started him on a path that led to the creation of the Deep Green Biotech Hub in July 2016. The hub connects the scientists who work with these living building blocks to entrepreneurs and industry leaders to help create environmentally and economically sustainable solutions to real-world problems.
“You have to be prepared to work with your opinions and be open to solutions,” says Peter. “I want the hub to be a dynamic melting pot of ideas where people can come and learn and explore ideas without feeling intimidated.”
This month, the hub’s biggest public-facing project is being brought to life – literally. As part of Vivid Sydney, an illuminated algal forest (the UTS Living Lights installation) will spring to life on Sydney’s foreshore. Eighteen tubes, up to two-and-a-half metres high, will be filled with three different strains of algae. The result will be multi-coloured, eye-catching and interactive.
The project was originally spearheaded by Elizabeth Kuo and Anna Yiasemides from the Marketing and Communication Unit and has now brought together engineers, lighting designers, algae scientists and more from around the university. It’s the first living exhibit of its kind at Vivid Sydney – a fitting milestone for a technology with such unrealised potential.
“I think it will be transformative for the whole of the event, the people that see it, the questions they ask, the knowledge they walk away with. There is this beautiful story of chemistry, biology and physics, all mixed together. It’s going to turn algae from the slime in the pool to something that has beauty and endless opportunities.”
Vivid Sydney is the world’s largest festival of light, music and ideas. It will be held from 25 May to 16 June. This includes a Vivid Ideas event on 9 June about the creative and industrial applications of algae. To find out more about the UTS Living Lights installation, visit vividsydney.com.au