Hacking the polymers; Seaweed tannins for fabric dying



Fabric dying with Ecklonia Radiata

French literary theorist Roland Barthes explained  in his text “Death of the Author”, that it is not literary convention alone, nor solely the writer that brings meaning to a text but further interpretation comes from those who subsequently read it. From my experience, similar can be said of working with a medium, product or technology. It may be designed for a certain use, however it is the alternative applications that people creatively apply to it that I find fascinating. These uses can be defined as hacking.

There is often a lag between the development of a new product or technology and the understanding of its full potential or risk. These good or bad consequences have been observed since ancient times and explained through such things as Pandora’s Box and Promethean myth. We simply have to look at plastics to observe this in action.

Further, together with CMBD, we have found that certain seaweed polymers can have multiple potentials e.g. from gel, to fibre, to film, to matrix, and can have broad applications.

One of the attributes of seaweeds is that certain varieties contain tannins. CMBD are interested in seaweed tannins for their health benefits. Tannins are bio-molecules that bind to proteins. They are also available in tea and wine. Tannins protect against oxidative stress; an imbalance in the cell’s ability to repair itself. (Free radicals steal electrons from molecules and make them unstable.)Tannins have antioxidant potential, protecting against oxidation as they can donate electrons to free radicals to make them more stable.

After observing the staining capacity of the seaweed tannins when pressing and drying samples between paper, I decided to experiment with the seaweeds we use to make polymers to make fabric dyes. Fabric dying processes were researched and I found that certain chemicals we use to precipitate the bioplastic polymers are also used to create fabric dyes.

Natural fabric dyes are said to be more ecologically friendly than synthetic dyes.

Eklonia Radiata dye

To date I have produced subtle skin toned dyes from the species Ecklonia Radiata and Durvillaea (Bull kelp). These fit within my go to palette of bodily hues; skin, fat, flesh and blood.

Blue Oceans: Blue taxonomy: Watery thinking

Blue Ocean Strategy, Blue Bio-economy and Blue Ocean shift, refer to blue oceans as metaphors for cutting edge strategies and unexplored or uncontested  markets. Working within science and technology frameworks, business idioms are often utilised.

Beyond a purely economic focus, I wish to explore oceanic taxonomies that include broader cultural narratives.

What are the Blue Humanities?

Configurations: A journal of Literature , Science and Technology, Special Issue on Science Studies in the Blue Humanities,                      Vol 27, Number 4 .Fall 2019, John Hopkins University Press.

Configurations dedicated a special issue on Science Studies in the Blue Humanities and identified the Blue Humanities as an emerging field pertaining to cultural meaning of the Ocean through physical, social, ideological, scientific and aesthetic modalities. It was identified that the ocean is storied through a network of knowledge systems; science and technology, fiction, society, economics and politics.

Associated terms for the Blue Humanities;

  • Blue cultural studies
  • terraquious ecocriticism
  • critical ocean studies
  • humanist Oceanic Studies
  • aquatic environmentalism

Authors put forward the idea that it is important to, “think the blue humanities and the discoveries of marine sciences through one another in creative ways.”p443 and that we consider, “The Physical convergences of water, [and] body..,[to] generate an emotional and experiential convergence.p438

The ocean was imagined as;

  • Bodily; salty tears, blood and sweat
  • Immersive
  • Horizontal navigation
  • Fecund; sea milk
  • final frontier
  • global commons
  • extractive zones (colonialism)
  • environmental risk
  • sustainability
  • graveyard; ossification
  • abyss
  • ontology of convergence
  • intertidal zone
  • Escaping anthropocentric existence                                                            and the counterpoint notion of
  • A medium to bring marine domains closer to human reality                and I would add to this the new ecology of
  • Plastisphere

“to glimpse the seas one must…be immersed in highly mediated environments that suggest the entanglements of knowledge, science, economics, and power” Stacy Alaimo







“Fiki” seaweed biopolymer sculpture, Niki Sperou in collaboration with Peng Su, CMBD.

This post is regarding Fyki seaweed biopolymer sculpture, named after the Greek word for seaweed. As the artefact has precipitated much interest and many questions since it was made early in the Green Plastics-Blue Ocean project, I will address the concepts associated with its creation.

As well as being an aesthetic object which invites tactile response (I have noted that everyone wants to run their hands over her), Fyki  clearly demonstrates the attributes of the polymer beyond the 2D pour and cast method usually adopted in laboratory practice.

My intention was to develop an intimate understanding of the properties of the polymer through intensive manipulation. The substructure of the sculpture is a  glass model of a head that I have used many times in my art practice. It is a generic form, pertaining neither to a particular gender or ethnicity. I wanted to test if the polymer could form a skin which would hold together over the 3D glass form. Glass and polymer are not compatible and it was clear that any attempt to simply pour the polymer over the head in quantities available in the lab would not result in a suitable ‘skin’ formation.

I drew upon prior experience from sculpture workshop i.e. lost wax casting method and developed a layering technique, that after several attempts to cover the form with unrefined brown seaweed (Durvillea Pototorum) polymer, finally resulted in minute polymer aggregates. These aggregates were very delicate and could easily be dislodged through subsequent polymer layers and the tendency for polymer swelling.

After extremely careful rendering and heat drying of 100+ polymer layers, the polymer finally formed a strong skin with the ability to readily absorb polymer moisture and less carefully applied additional layers.

Further to this, the human form evokes the potential of bioplastic polymers for personal, regenerative, and other medical use.

Tackling the Waste Problem with Biodegradable and Compostable Options

Sorting waste: this is how the experts do it

Biodegradability is the natural process that occurs when a product breaks down. Compostability requires a certain setting which facilitates the breaking down.

Today CMBD members and I visited Peats Soil and Garden Supplies composting facility in South Australia. Peter Wadewitz, the Managing Director, showed great interest toward seaweed bioplastic materials, as  products that are both biodegradable and compostable.

Peter Wadewitz

Peter Wadewitz informed us about the Australian Package Covenant Organization (APCO). In mid-2018 at the Meeting of Environment Ministers (MEM) forum, the state and federal governments agreed to four Australian National Packaging Targets with the aim to reduce our waste problem by the year 2025.

Australia’s 2025 National Packaging Targets:

  • 100% of packaging to be reusable, recyclable or compostable
  • 70% of plastic packaging recycled or composted
  • 50% average recycled content across all packaging
  • Phase Out problematic and unnecessary single-use plastic packaging                                                                            (packagingcovenant.org.au)

The 2025 Australian National Packaging targets together with the recent Chinese ban on receiving the world’s plastic waste have situated our work with biodegradable plastic within a massive opportunity to bring about real changes in thinking and actions relating to the plastics problem.

Plastics removal machinery at Peats Soil separates petrochemical plastic from compostable waste

Biological action within a properly composting ‘BiobiN’ can generate temperatures around 60-70 degrees celsius, effectively killing waste contaminated with viruses. Technology such as this creates opportunity for safe disposal of medical waste including models/products we have been working on e.g. surgical masks.  Specifically pertinent, it seems, during the current situation in which more medical waste will be generated due to laws in Australia requiring people in lockdown or high risk areas wear facial masks whenever they leave home.

Bio-bins facilitate bacterial activity that composts waste
Recycled compost for agriculture forms part of a Bio-circular Economy

Scanning Electron Microscopy (SEM) – observing bio-polymer properties

“Plague doctor” masks were stuffed with fragrant herbs to protect the wearer from disease. CMBD researchers are now working toward the production of surgical masks made from seaweed bio-polymer films. As mentioned in earlier posts, seaweed have antiviral properties making them both biodegradable and excellent for health and personal protection applications.  From the samples made last week, we are looking for seaweed biopolymer films with an open pore structure allowing for breathability. Of the many samples observed under SEM together with CMBD researcher Wanling, the sample above was amongst the films with suitable pore size.

Most of the polymer films had no open pores making them suitable for other applications but rendering them unsuitable for surgical mask production.

Wanling Cai loading the seaweed bio-polymer film samples before coating with gold

Above: Samples are attached to SEM pinholder with double-sided carbon adhesive tape. They are then coated with a thin layer of gold before imaging to intensify electrical conductivity.

SEM observation desk

A case of the spots: Anti-viral personal protective products

Waterproof composite polka dot film

The concept below was met with a variety of responses from laboratory staff.  They were invited to perform a sensory test by rubbing the polymer between their palms. I viewed this as something akin to Relational Aesthetics, where concern is not with an art object but between the idea and social context. Reactions varied from laughter, embarrassment, curiosity, acceptance.

At CMBD we have been working with five main ingredients to create a range of seaweed-biopolymer materials.

After experimenting freely with the physical properties of these ingredients, a systematic approach is now being undertaken to minimise the variables.

Marine Seaweed biopolymer ingredient physical attributes:

water- proof


heat sealable


tensile stretch/flexibility


Our team has now broadened to include colleagues who will be working to develop ideas mentioned in earlier posts e.g. anti-viral, anti-bacterial film for face masks and activated wound healing films.

The polymer preparation includes much waiting time. Today, whilst waiting I read the article; Antiviral Potential of Algae Polysaccharides Isolated from Marine Sources: A Review, Azin Ahmadi et al, http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2015/825203

The review states that marine algae are, “a rich arsenal of active metabolites with pharmaceutical potential, including anticancer, antitumor, antioxidant, antiviral.”

Further to this, marine algal derived polysaccharides are natural polymers which have antiviral properties which inhibit virus replication and the binding or internalisation of virus into host cells. Polymers named in the review inhibited mumps, hepatitis A, influenza B, and various absorption of viral STD’s; HPV & HIV.

I  recommended anti-viral polymers be developed as lubricant gels, condoms and underwear.

Peng Su and I brought my idea to fruition by developing a silicone free, anti-viral, marine algal polymer personal lubricating gel.

silicone-free, anti-viral, marine algal polymer personal lubricating gel
silicone free, anti-viral, marine algal personal lubricating gel

CMBD Staff member Kirsten Heimann forwarded a paper on an additional anti-viral as a suggested additive to the gel. The anti-viral is a protein that binds to sugars attached to HIV, it envelopes the protein and prevents it from binding to mucosal cell surfaces. It is also active against herpes viruses.

Alternative use for this lubricant can be as a base for hand sanitiser or ultrasound gel.

To make lubricant gels more socially acceptable they have been referred to as ‘personal protective’ gels.

Developing and Testing composite seaweed polymers

soaking the laminated polymer to test for water resistance

Last week the laminated seaweed bio-polymer films I prepared were sent for high resolution imaging to observe properties by bio-technologist Wei-Lin.

Samples of the laminated films were tested for water resistance by soaking in water.

The laminated films were water resistant on the surface but cut edges bled out. The polymer on the far left was the most resistant to moisture.

Laminating successfully resulted in moisture resistant films but full immersion resulted in bleeding at cut edges. I expect that handling properties, e.g. cutting, stitching, moulding, will be much easier with this reinforced material.

hacking craft techniques for science
Creating a film to seal polymer

The use of a craft cutter elicited both curiosity and amusement on the lab.

A craft cutter was used to create regular polymer film shapes. I laminated the shapes to stabilise the polymer before creating a composite film.  The regular shape allowed for observation of 20% polymer swelling and transfer of seaweed tannin. It was determined that room must be allowed for polymer swelling to inhibit polymer film buckling and cracking.

Peng -Su experimented with chemical cross linker to inhibit swelling but this was discovered to be unsuccessful.

Composite polymer pieces were soaked in water to test for water resistance
Composite polymer dots adhered nicely to skin and held their shape after immersion in water.

I am excited to experiment further with this water resistant ‘dotty’ film.

Gel film responds to ambient moisture

Making changes to the gel film formula;

As with other seaweed polymers the gel film responds to ambient weather conditions.  Moisture absorbed into the film during wet weather causing polymer ingredients to precipitate out of the film.

Peng-Su and I made more gel films adjusting ingredients and film thickness. These film were not successful possibly due to bad weather.

We discussed the addition of beneficial marine derived antioxidants to these films.





Trouble Shooting: Revisiting and Improving Polymers

Revisiting Polymers Experiment (a)

After making works with the seaweed ‘leather’*, I found that it behaved like natural seaweed in that it was susceptible to changes in weather.  Damp conditions made it fragile and difficult to handle. I wanted a stable and more resilient film.

We attempted to produce waterproof films by mixing and pouring polymers with different attributes. These resulted in cracked, dry or brittle films. To date we had not produced a ‘natural seaweed’ polymer film that was soft, flexible and waterproof.

Dual poured polymer: brittle

I decided to work with earlier material as a base and laminate it with other polymers rather than limiting experiments to mixing or pouring materials.

Failed poured dual polymer

Lamination is the process of manufacturing a material in multiple layers to achieve improved qualities; strength, stability, appearance, or other properties.

Laminations: producing water resistant flexible films

Laminating the materials produced strong and flexible films.

I will be working with the improved materials for future art projects and expect they will respond better to manipulation.

Revisiting Polymers Experiment (b)

A gel polymer film made with Peng Su was discarded because it was too sticky. After some weeks it was revisited and the stickiness was gone.  We made a larger batch that was dried longer and the film was perfected.

Discussion regarding applications of all these polymers followed (including those needing improvement) as all had merit.

*for seaweed ‘leather’ see earlier posts.

2 piece mould for 3D polymer matrix

In addition to the societal relationship we have to plastics, another motive for collaborating with CMBD was to help with research and design of biodegradable marine algal polymers. Traditional techniques from the ‘plastic arts’ are useful. I demonstrated the making of an easy release, two piece mould to my collaborators for the creation of 3D bio-polymer scaffolds.

I made a two piece mould to cast the marine algal polymer into a 3D form
Removing the polymer form the 2 piece mould was successful –  fine surface details were retained
After casting in 2 piece mould the 3D polymer is immersed in chemical cross-linker iwith addition of colour indicator
After cross linking, fine surface details were retained but the polymer had minor bulging

Biodegradability: Novel Design & Public Acceptance


Novel product design depends upon cultural shift for it to be accepted. It was encouraging to see the inclusion of a biodegradable plastic garment in the online catalogue of an iconic Australian Department Store. Although the technology modelled above is not marine based as with this project, the focus upon biodegradability as a selling point within the fashion industry hopefully indicates a trend toward responsible behaviour and future demand for biodegradable plastics within the mainstream.

Within material and cultural studies, it is important that an artefact reflects the zeitgeist in which it is produced. Note here the underlying themes of anthropocentric crisis; consumption, responsibility and Covid 19.