Alumni Profile

Living Ink: Writing the next chapter in renewables with
carbon-negative ink

Writing the next chapter in renewables with carbon-negative ink

A startup is developing commercial inks and pigments from renewable algae

Petroleum is used to produce countless products that we interact with every day — fuels like gasoline and diesel, of course, but also cosmetics, plastics, paints. Many inks and pigments are also produced with petroleum. A Colorado-based startup is working to change that by harnessing the properties of algae to develop carbon-negative alternatives.

Scott Fulbright, Ph.D., is co-founder and chief executive officer of Living Ink Technologies. A cell and molecular biologist by training, Fulbright had ambition to build a company to address our broad use of fossil fuels since he began his doctoral program. “My co-founder and I met on the first day of chemistry class, and he said, ‘Let’s start a company someday using biotech to make the world a better place,’” Fulbright said.

A Colorful Idea

Fulbright studied algae in graduate school and while on a research fellowship, during which he was intrigued by the organism’s resilience and versatility. His eureka moment, however, came to him not in a lab, but in a grocery store.

As he was perusing greeting cards printed in vivid colors, he was reminded of variously colored ponds of algae that he looked down on during a flight over Northern California. The mash up of images made him think that perhaps there was an opportunity to produce colorful pigments from renewable algae.

Living Ink Technologies was founded in 2015 and has received non-dilutive funding via Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grants from the U.S. Department of Energy and the National Science Foundation, and capital from private investors.
As with all our SBIR grantees, Larta worked closely with Living Ink to create a solid commercialization plan required for the next stage of SBIR funding.  The company currently has four inks on the market that can be used for printing on a wide range of materials, including textiles and packaging.

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Scott Fulbright, Ph.D.

Co-founder & CEO
Living Ink

Steve Albers, Ph.D.

Co-founder & CTO
Living Ink

We’re actually carbon negative, so the more of our pigment you use, the more carbon you’re removing from the atmosphere.

Scott Fulbright, Ph.D.

Co-founder & CEO
Living Ink

The company has partnered with some major brands, including Patagonia, which uses Living Ink’s products to print tags that accompany clothing. “If you bought anything from Patagonia this year,” Fulbright said, “you’ve touched our product.” Nike also sells T-shirts printed with the Living Ink’s ink.

To make the ink, algae is grown in large pools and cultivated with sunlight, water and carbon dioxide. Pigment is created from the algae using Living Ink’s proprietary technology. “There is a thermal treatment that we use,” Fulbright said. “We take algae waste material, and then we use our thermal technology to make a really nice black dark pigment that doesn’t fade under UV light.”

The pigment is then turned into an ink that has similar characteristics to a conventional black ink, called carbon black, which is produced from petroleum. The company’s finished product, Algae Black, can be used in many of the same ways as carbon black and is priced similarly.

“There’s a large carbon footprint” to creating carbon black, Fulbright said. “We’re actually carbon negative, so the more of our pigment you use, the more carbon you’re removing from the atmosphere.”

Adding to the Palette

Fulbright and his team are also working on developing color pigments derived from algae, fulfilling the vision that struck him years ago in the greeting card aisle.

That said, the potential for humble algae to replace petroleum in manufacturing many everyday items
is quite clear to Fulbright: “I sit here and I write in my notebook with a plastic pen and I brush my
teeth with a plastic toothbrush” that are both made from petrochemicals.

“In my mind, it’s obvious. If we want to start this transition to renewables, it’s got to start now.”

Nike collaborated with Living Ink by printing their Sustainable Graphic Tees using our Algae Ink.

Earthrise eco-friendly algae farm located in the Sonoran Desert of southeastern California

Alumni News

July 8, 2022

Nike Embarks on a New Journey with Living Ink to Produce Algae Ink Apparel

Yesterday we discussed the latest endeavors of Vollebak and its Algae ink capsule collection. Following in a similar direction, Nike has collaborated with biomaterials company Living Ink to bring a new sustainable offering to its audience. Guided by an ongoing devotion to the future of eco-conscious clothing, this material revolution is stepping away from petrochemical materials for substances that are kinder to the earth.

December 19, 2019

Algae offset ink replaces petroleum-based pigments in Patagonia’s printed city guide

Designed by studio Cast Iron as a guide to its home city – Boulder in Colorado – the booklet was printed using the renewable substitute ink, created as a byproduct of spirulina production.

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