Red, blue or pink: Time to think about bioink- Is the pen mightier than the sword? If it’s the right kind of ink

September 15, 2019 |

Ink – it’s something we all use. Whether a pen to “ink a deal” or write a quick note, or ink for our printers, it’s something we rely on pretty much every day. Even tattoos use ink so it’s literally all around us and even on us. And nowadays the right ink can be even more powerful than the sword because it can give life instead of take away life. We’ll get into how in a minute, but first, isn’t all ink bioink?

Short answer, nope but it’s a bit more to the story than that. While modern day ink is usually composed of petroleum ingredients, ink has a very biobased beginning. It is believed that the first writing ink was invented in 2500 B. C. by mixing carbon with gum. Over history, it shifted from a kind of soot by-product of fire to resin of pine trees, graphite ground with water, iron salts, tannin from gallnuts, hawthorn branches, walnut oil, soy oil, and even corn and canola oils.

But somewhere around the mid-1900s petroleum-based inks were discovered and shown to be a bit better in terms of drying qualities. Petroleum-based inks became pretty widespread until the oil shortages of 1970s made vegetable oils a more cost effective alternative especially for printing inks.

But we are seeing a trend towards more and more biobased inks, even if some are not 100% biobased. No, we aren’t going back to building a fire and taking the soot from it (well, maybe someone out there is), but rather there are a slew of companies that are being quite innovative in their approach to ink. And some are even using bioink to 3D print human organs, literally giving ink the ability to save lives.

Here are some of the latest ones we’ve seen.

Sun Chemical’s SunPak

Just last week in the United Kingdom, Sun Chemical’s biobased offset inkset for food packaging, dubbed SunPak FSP, has been certified 77% biobased by Beta Analytic, as reported in NUU.

“For some years Sun Chemical has been working to promote sustainable solutions, such as SunPak FSP, and our ongoing approach to sustainability guides the way we develop, manufacture and distribute products, as well as how we work with our customers and suppliers,” says Felipe Mellado, Chief Marketing Officer and Board Member at Sun Chemical. “It’s therefore gratifying now to be able to provide independent evidence of the sustainable quality of SunPak FSP—one of our most popular ink ranges.”

Sun Chemical says demand for Sunpak FSP has grown by double digits annually in Europe since its launch.

Beta Analytic is a leader in Carbon-14 measurements. At its testing laboratory in Florida the lab measured the ratio of radiocarbon in the inkset relative to a National Institute of Standards and Technology modern reference standard (SRM 4990C) and the results were accredited to ISO/IEC 17025:2005 accreditation, the highest level of recognized quality any testing or calibration laboratory can attain.

The ratio of radiocarbon was calculated as a percentage and reported as the percentage of “Biobased Carbon”, which indicates the percentage of carbon in the inkset from “natural” (plant-based) sources versus “synthetic” (petrochemical) sources. The test showed that, on average, 77% of the total organic carbon in the inks in the SunPak FSP range is biobased carbon content, with only 23% being fossil carbon, of which the majority relates to pigments.

Ingevity’s AltaPrint

Also last week, South-Carolina based Ingevity, a specialty chemicals company, launched a new environmentally friendly AltaPrint ink resin product line. A phenol- and formaldehyde-free modified rosin resin, AltaPrint is formulated for use in heatset and sheetfed inks for the packaging and commercial printing markets and is available globally.

According to their press release, “The AltaPrint family of products offers customers a more eco-friendly rosin resin alternative to petroleum-based phenolic modified resins without sacrificing performance characteristics such as gloss and film hardness. In addition, Altaprint’s increased bio-content means it contains more renewable raw materials than phenolic-based competitors.”

Living Ink’s Algae Ink

In Colorado, a startup is producing sustainable ink for packaging using algae as feedstock, as reported in NUU in May. Living Ink is using proprietary technology to take the crude pigment from algae and purify it, mill it, and form it into a dispersion that can then be formulated into a variety of products including ink – so it’s biobased and compostable.

“I recall thinking, why are we making disposable packaging ink with materials that are made to last an eternity?” Fulbright writes in an issue of Cosmetics Business. “Why not use pigments that nature has already developed and which grow on a massive scale?”

Algae Black has also been found cut carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by 200% per ton produced compared with traditional carbon black, Fulbright adds.

In fact, as reported in NUU in August, Living Ink is partnering with printers to bring Algae Ink to commercialization. Shelf life of the ink was a challenge the company has now overcome by “refining the pigment into a purer form, while tweaking the ink formulation to keep pigments suspended in solution,” Dr. Scott Fulbright, Living Ink’s CEO told Ink World.

The ink is very similar to other ink formulations making it a “drop-in” solution so printers can use it just like any other ink. Even better, they developed several different colors of algae to make different colored inks, though black ink is still the one with the most demand and the one they are focused on scaling up.

And interestingly, Living Ink has brought in commercial partner Cellana, along with Neste, on a new commercial agreement with POS Bio-Sciences. Cellana signed a term sheet for $27 million of debt-based project financing with an undisclosed project financing partner for a proposed 54-acre commercial algae facility.

The 54-acre commercial algae facility is expected to produce 700 to 800 metric tons of KA32 algae (on a dry weight basis) annually with estimated pre-tax cash margins of over 50%, based on the yield, price, and cost estimates provided to the project financing partner. The project financing partner has also indicated the availability of more than $100 million of additional debt-based project financing for subsequent commercial facilities, based on the success of the proposed 54-acre commercial algae facility.

KA32 is a strain of the genus Nannochloropsis enriched with high-value EPA Omega-3 oils, and the algae meal remaining after extraction of EPA Omega-3 oils has been successfully demonstrated in large-scale animal feed trials and in commercial algae-based ink products sold by Cellana’s partner Living Ink Technologies.

Chalmers University Wood-based Ink

In Sweden, researchers at Chalmers University of Technology have succeeded in 3D printing with a wood-based ink in a way that mimics the unique ‘ultrastructure’ of wood, as reported in NUU in July. Through emulating the natural cellular architecture of wood, they now present the ability to create green products derived from trees, with unique properties – everything from clothes, packaging, and furniture to healthcare and personal care products.

By previously converting wood pulp into a nanocellulose gel, researchers at Chalmers had already succeeded in creating a type of ink that could be 3D printed. Now, they present a major progression – successfully interpreting and digitising wood’s genetic code, so that it can instruct a 3D printer.

It means that now, the arrangement of the cellulose nanofibrils can be precisely controlled during the printing process, to actually replicate the desirable ultrastructure of wood. Being able to manage the orientation and shape means that they can capture those useful properties of natural wood.

A further advance on previous research is the addition of hemicellulose, a natural component of plant cells, to the nanocellulose gel. The hemicellulose acts as a glue, giving the cellulose sufficient strength to be useful, in a similar manner to the natural process of lignification, through which cell walls are built.

Sugarcane Bagasse Waste for Ink

As reported in NUU in February, in Scandinavia and Argentina, researchers are using sugarcane waste bagasse in 3D printing. So sweet to use something already used all over the world for ethanol, food, etc. for yet another cool product. Even better, it’s waste that is already there.

“Bagasse is an underutilized agro-industrial residue with great potential as raw material for the production of cellulose nanofibrils (CNF) for a range of applications,” the researchers say in their paper, “Pulping and Retreatment Affect the Characteristics of Bagasse Inks for Three-dimensional Printing.”

The work involved extracting bagasse fibers using soda and hydrothermal treatment. According to the researchers—who 3D printed ears and noses to demonstrate the material’s utility—the pulping process is important to design inks for 3D printing that have appropriate surface chemistry, chemical composition and nanofibrillar morphology. “This is an aspect that has not been considered before in the design and formulation of inks for 3D bioprinting,” says author Gary Chinga-Carrasco. The CNFs produced were less nanofibrillated than corresponding material produced by soda pulping.

Bioink that is as alive as you – the next level of bioink

So bioink technically has been around for what seems like forever in history but the innovations nowadays are impressive nonetheless. But now it even goes beyond what is found in nature like tree resin or plant oils and is moving towards a sort of Frankenstein laboratory of creating something that’s alive. We can hear it now, “It’s alive! It’s alive!”

As reported in NUU in April, Israel-based Tel Aviv University researchers have “printed” the world’s first 3D vascularized engineered heart using a patient’s own cells and biological materials – taking bioink to a whole new level. Until now, scientists in regenerative medicine — a field positioned at the crossroads of biology and technology — have been successful in printing only simple tissues without blood vessels.

“This is the first time anyone anywhere has successfully engineered and printed an entire heart replete with cells, blood vessels, ventricles and chambers,” says Prof. Tal Dvir of TAU’s School of Molecular Cell Biology and Biotechnology, Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Center for Nanoscience and Nanotechnology and Sagol Center for Regenerative Biotechnology, who led the research for the study.

“This heart is made from human cells and patient-specific biological materials. In our process these materials serve as the bioinks, substances made of sugars and proteins that can be used for 3D printing of complex tissue models,” Prof. Dvir says. “People have managed to 3D-print the structure of a heart in the past, but not with cells or with blood vessels. Our results demonstrate the potential of our approach for engineering personalized tissue and organ replacement in the future.”

Another company working on the “It’s Alive” 3D printing of human tissue is Sweden-based Cellink which is using bioink and 3D printing technology to create biomaterial structures with living cells, as reported in NUU in May 2017. Long are the days of waiting on a list for transplants for new body parts or of having to test consumer products on animals, now that you can 3D print them. Cellink is finding a growing interest for its printers in the cosmetic sector for things like new noses and ears, especially in countries like China. The company was doing quite well after going public within 10 months of being founded and having its shares 1070% oversubscribed. With only 20 people in the company, Cellink’s customers are still mainly universities but some big-name cosmetic companies are looking into 3D printing of human tissue as a way to avoid animal testing.

Bottom Line

While bioink may have started thousands of years ago with fire residue and soot on a cave wall, it has evolved using things we never dreamed of and even becoming “alive”. It will be fascinating to see where the future goes with bioinks around the world and what can be accomplished.

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