Painting a bigger picture with microalgae

The digestive problems of a pet goldfish have opened the door to a new world of non-toxic paint supplies.

Visual Arts student Jesse Robertson was nursing a goldfish back to health. She asked her boyfriend, Chemical and Biochemical Engineering PhD student Darcy Small, if he could get some algae for her to feed the fish. After all, Small works with Wankei Wan, Biochemical Engineering professor, whose research includes the production of microalgae.

When Robertson received the powdered algae, for some reason a light bulb clicked  and she looked at the soon-to-be fish medicine. Could she use this in her artwork?

“(The algae) was in a powder, and in my painting I wanted to get the perfect algae green,” she said. So Robertson added a bit of water to the algae to make a watery paste.

“I used this green and we had the idea to make a pigment out of it and Darcy found a way to produce other colours which can be viably used,” Robertson said. “I’ve been painting for years and I usually use acrylic, but I would used this pigment any day.”



For Wan, this newest (and perhaps most unique) use for his research only exemplifies the seemingly endless number of mainstream applications for his unicellular organisms.

“Algae is all in the eye of the beholder,” he said. “It depends what you can get out of it. So if we can get something interesting and useful, and along the way make some money and help the environment too, why not?”

Wan’s microalgae research took off when he discovered exposing it to static magnetic fields could optimize growth rate and lipid production.

By designing a tabletop raceway pond, his team began growing a common species of single-celled algae called Chlorella kessleri. When passing it through the magnetic field, Wan discovered he could double the growth rate and lipid oil production – essentially growing the overall process four-fold. The original motivation of his research was to study the electromagnetic field affect on humans.

“We were actually surprised at how effective it was and how easy it is for us to see it,” Wan said.

Surprisingly, along the way, Wan also found the algae actually has a memory.

“We can expose the algae to a magnetic field for a period of time, but when we remove the magnetic field the enhancement affect stays on,” he said. “It’s generations for this memory to go away; so it’s quite interesting.”

So you can increase the growth rate of microalgae, but how is this beneficial to the general public? You’d be surprised by the potential uses.

Microalgae application includes everything from serving as a component to produce bio-diesel and bio-jet fuel (which the U.S. Navy is exploring) to producing polyunsaturated fatty acids (including Omega 3) to generating a molecule called astaxanthin, a potent, natural anti-oxidant which has demonstrated effects in inhibiting tumor cell growth and improving cardiovascular health.

Microalgae has also been employed in producing bio-plastics. With a property similar to polypropylene, it has been approved for medical applications as well as simple household use.

And now, it has entered the visual arts angle.

“We are now able to produce algae of the primary colours. Normally, we can produce in various shades of green, but we can produce version of algae that are red, and the most difficult, the blue one,” Wan said. “And the beauty is we can extract different components of the algae. So if I want to focus on one area, it’s not at the expense of the other one.”

Wan stressed many pigments currently used are toxic (metal oxides), so if he is able to cover the full spectrum using this new method, it opens a world of unexpected opportunity. “We are really doing a good service for the artists,” Wan said. “We never thought it could be the best non-toxic pigment that you can find.”

Wan has commissioned Robertson to produce a painting using the microalgae for the Green Living Show in Toronto this April, where he will be showcasing his research.

Wan is driven to find answers to questions yet asked. While he worked in industry for years prior to teaching, and has a standing offer to return and double his pay, he like it where he is. He pointed to a framed photo in his office reading, ‘Do not go where the path may lead; go instead where there is no path and leave a trail.’

“This what makes me decide to come back every day,” Wan said. “It’s the challenge, the flexibility and excitement of the job. The moment of discovery is what is most exciting. I am inherently an impatient person, so as soon as I know a problem can be solved, I move on to the next.”