The colour blue is exceptionally rare in nature, and most of the examples that spring to mind don’t actually contain blue pigments.
The sky appears blue because particles in the atmosphere scatter the shorter blue wavelengths of white sunlight more easily than all the other colours, sending blue light in all directions, including into our eyes. Unmistakably blue animals like the morpho butterfly and the blue jay also don’t get their colour from pigments, but from tiny ridges on their scales and feathers that reflect light in a way that cancels out all the other wavelengths.
These phenomena are fascinating, but they don’t help us isolate a substance that can be used in paints or dyes.
Even our synthetic options are fairly limited. When YInMn blue was accidentally created in a lab at Oregon State University in 2009, it became the first new synthetic blue pigment in over 200 years.
“What will shock most people is that the blue that you find in jeans is the same blue that’s used in cotton candy or gummies that your kids are eating or that you’re eating,” said Angela Kouris, CEO and co-founder of Synergia Biotech, in a press release.
The rarity of natural blue pigments makes Synergia’s product all the more special. Like chlorophyll that helps plants convert sunlight into energy, phycocyanin is also a pigment made by algae for photosynthesis, but instead of being green it’s naturally blue. Until now it has been very difficult to extract at commercial volumes.
Synergia’s process not only produces the rare blue pigment at large scales, it also captures CO2 from the atmosphere as the algae grow.
“For each ton of phycocyanin that we produce, we mitigate 10 tons of CO2 emissions,” added Kouris. “It’s not going to be enough to simply reduce CO2 emissions to save the planet in the future. We’re going to actually have to remove it and use it.”
First discovered by researchers at the University of Calgary, the algae that make this possible come from the Soda Lakes in the Cariboo Plateau of British Columbia. There are only a handful of lakes like it on the planet.
These lakes are highly alkaline, allowing them to better absorb CO2 from the atmosphere. That boost in CO2 that algae need to grow makes these waters some of the most biologically productive ecosystems on Earth. At the same time, that CO2 can durably captured in useful products.
The algae are grown in racetrack-shaped ponds where they are kept moving by large paddlewheels. Absorbing sunlight and CO2 to grow, they multiply until they are ready to harvest. A solvent-free microbe-driven extraction process releases the phycocyanin pigment into the water, and the remaining biomass is separated and recycled into the ponds to help more algae grow.
As an actual pigment, phycocyanin can replace artificial blues. It also has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties, and it’s even a drug candidate for cancer treatment. Vibrant and unusual, blue pigments have a huge market in the food, clothing, and cosmetics industries.
As the world moves away from toxic synthetic dyes, in particular for the clothing industry, the demand for alternative pigments that won’t pollute the environment will continue to grow. Phycocyanin is natural and non-toxic, and the entire process used to obtain it actually helps clean the air. It takes less energy to make than other synthetic blue pigments, and it’s also more cost effective.
That’s a beautiful synergy.