It is estimated that more than 75% of the 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic produced over the last 65 years have turned into waste, of which up to 13 million metric tons end up in our oceans every year.1, 2 Organizations like ULUU are trying to solve the growing issue of plastic pollution by prototyping alternative materials to market.

“Unlike synthetic plastics, our materials are not produced using petrochemicals derived from fossil fuels. Instead, they are made from sustainable feedstocks with much more sustainable production processes. And, in the end, our products are compostable and marine-biodegradable, so they don’t pose a lasting impact on the environment,” described Dr. Luke Richards, lead scientist at ULUU.

ULUU’s vision: replace traditional plastics with a clean, sustainable process

ULUU was started in 2020 by Dr. Julia Reisser and Michael Kingsbury, with the unique company name invented by the co-CEOs. Their focus was to form a biotech company to tackle plastic pollution. Lab operations started in mid-2021 with just four people. Recently, they’ve grown to a team of 17 to run their production line, R&D work, and quality control lab. They’re also currently building a pilot plant, which will be online soon.

ULUU’s PHA product sample
ULUU’s PHA product sample

The mission at ULUU is to replace plastics with materials that are good for the world. They’re producing a versatile natural polymer called polyhydroxalkanoates (PHA), using seaweed as a sustainable resource for that process. The result is a material that is biodegradable and won’t accumulate in oceans and landfills or linger as microplastics in biological systems.

In terms of climate change, using seaweed as a feedstock, ULUU captures carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and converts it into PHA. Their process also doesn’t rely on conventional land-based farming, which can take land away from natural ecosystems. Additionally, farming seaweed has some positive impacts on our oceans. Research indicates that seaweed helps clean up environmental pollutants and reverses acidification and eutrophication.3–5

“It’s an exciting, fast-paced environment. We’ve gone from experimenting with small amounts of seaweed at the lab bench to now producing PHA at a kilogram scale in our small production facility. And, we’ll be increasing this significantly in a few months once our pilot plant is fully commissioned. So, it’s been a series of quick milestones,” said Richards.

Engineering a sustainable solution to plastic pollution

ULUU uses bioreactors ranging from 1 to 50 L to make their products. They also use specialized equipment to investigate injection molding and turning their PHA product into solid objects for prototyping. The entire production process from seaweed input to the finished PHA powder is monitored by their QC lab, in which most assays use chromatography instruments. These instruments include two Agilent 1260 Infinity II liquid chromatographs (LCs) and one Agilent 8890 gas chromatograph (GC), with detection by an Agilent InfinityLab LC/MSD iQ, an Agilent 1260 Infinity II refractive index detector (RID), and an Agilent 5977B GC/MSD.

“Our chromatography instruments enable us to monitor and improve our entire production process. From the first input, we perform a biochemical analysis of the seaweed to analyze carbohydrates, as well as other compounds. We also use the instruments to measure nutrients in the fermentation broth, which is the medium that we feed to the microbes to produce PHA—it’s a key QC step in our production,” explained Richards.

Dr. Luke Richards loading QC samples into an Agilent 1260 Infinity II LC
Dr. Luke Richards loading QC samples into an Agilent 1260 Infinity II LC

He continued, “We monitor how the process is going throughout fermentation and production of the polymer. We measure the sugar consumption in the medium that’s fed to the microbes and the PHA content within the cells. And, at the end of the fermentation process, we use the instruments again to measure the purity of the product and the composition and molecular weight of the polymer. Our LCs and GC are critical from start to finish.”

Richards noted that the chromatography instruments are also necessary to their R&D processes. They are used to optimize ULUU’s fermentation process, assessing different hydrolysis methods and fermentation strategies.

Agilent helps ULUU further their sustainability goals

Agilent has partnered with My Green Lab to have select instruments independently audited and verified for their environmental impact. The process results in My Green Lab’s ACT® (accountability, consistency, transparency) label, which details the environmental impact of an instrument’s entire product life cycle, from manufacturing and shipping to use and end of life.

“With our mission to improve the quality of the environment, it’s important that we keep our environmental impact as low as possible throughout our operations, including our analytical lab. The instruments are heavily used in—and essential for—our R&D and production line. So, it’s great to have transparency around the environmental impact of our instruments. It was important to partner with Agilent, who took the initiative to get their instruments audited,” explained Richards.

ULUU scientists Dr Sheik Md Moniruzzaman and Vatsal Meshram in their QC lab using the Agilent 1260 Infinity II LC with Agilent InfinityLab LC/MSD iQ
ULUU scientists Dr Sheik Md Moniruzzaman and Vatsal Meshram in their QC lab using the Agilent 1260 Infinity II LC with Agilent InfinityLab LC/MSD iQ

Becoming independently audited for their own sustainability is part of ULUU’s objectives for the near future. Building their analytical lab around ACT-labeled Agilent solutions was a great step towards this. With high-throughput sample analysis on a day-to-day basis, it will be a big contributor to their overall sustainability assessment.

A cleaner, greener future with ULUU

To compete with fossil fuel plastics, ULUU is working to improve process efficiency to get their material price to a competitive level. Their R&D is currently focused on increasing the PHA yield from as little seaweed as possible to get the price per kilogram of product down.

Another long-term goal for ULUU is to expand their versatility. “We want our product to be used for an extensive range of applications. From solid objects to textile fibers and flexible films, this will allow us to replace all types of fossil fuel plastic with materials that are better for the environment,” said Richards.

Luke Richards, PhD, lead scientist, ULUU

Luke Richards, PhD, lead scientist, ULUU
Luke has a PhD in biochemical engineering from the University of Melbourne and bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and bioprocess engineering. Luke’s research experience involves the application of microbes for pharmaceutical production. He has also worked as a process engineer in the dairy industry. When Luke is not using fermentation to make biodegradable plastic, he enjoys the process to make beer instead.