ArtSea Inks and Material—a Sustainable Art Media for 2-D and 3-D Compositions

Technology Overview

From Rembrandt to Picasso, artists have been using the right combination of color and texture to conjure emotive responses. Today, artists have capitalized on the versatility of additive manufacturing, more commonly known as 3-D printing, to create, restore, and modify art.  Current 3-D printing processes predominantly use plastic, which requires high heat to melt the media, thereby limiting manual printing. Researchers at PNNL have invented bio-derived polymers and inks that can be printed at room temperature to bridge this gap.

Bio-Derived Polymers for Fine Details

Video: Pacific Northwest National Laboratory

ArtSea Inks and Material are a novel, seaweed-based polymer “doped” with pearlescent mica powder. The mica pigments in the ArtSea Inks serve as chromatic additives that impart color without interfering with the printing and cross-linking of the seaweed polymer material. Ultimately, these new inks create a simple approach to 3-D printing and subtractive techniques to create fine details.

The invention provides a low-cost, tunable, 2-D and 3-D media for everyone—from kids, to DIYers, to industry. Conventional 3-D printing requires an expensive printer, software, maintenance, and high-heat to melt plastics so that they can be shaped into structures. Ultimately, this manufacturing process limits the use of plastic in versatile approaches, such as manual printing. Manual printing may be ideal because it can be cost-efficient and simple.

The roots of ArtSea Inks and Material began with biodetection in mind—specifically, rapid detection and characterization of biological threats—using a combination of strengths in threat detection and 3-D printing, material design, tissue engineering, and host response. Researchers were studying how harmful microbial pathogens—such as Bacillus anthracis, the causative agent of anthrax, and influenza—can impact tissue. They soon discovered ArtSea Inks and Material have applications well beyond their original intent.

To create the bioink, the scientists infuse pearlized pigments, called mica colorants, into the algal extract—imparting vivid colors. The algal/mica combination is dissolved in water and then combined with a solution of calcium chloride. The positively charged calcium ions meld with negatively charged portions of various polymer strands, forming a viscous tunable “gum” that offers the perfect balance of stiffness and workability to form stable 3-D structures.

A Rainbow of Colors

ArtSea Inks can be added throughout the printing process using a nozzle to apply different colors, or the material can be colorized prior to printing. Photo by Andrea Starr | PNNL
ArtSea Inks can be applied throughout the printing process using a nozzle to apply different colors, or the material can be colorized prior to printing. (Photo by Andrea Starr | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

The bioinks also can be formulated to any color, including metallic and pearlescent colors, as well as glow-in-the-dark inks. ArtSea Inks and Material can be used to create representations of biological materials and models, as well as incorporate mammalian and bacterial cells into the bioink. The results, for example, could provide structures that illuminate the lantern of a firefly’s abdominal region for studying the internal workings of that species or depict different regions in a human brain for anatomy lessons in high school science classes.


  • Ideal for 2-D- and 3-D-printed compositions
  • Cost-effective and simple method for manual printing
  • No need for complex software or hardware maintenance of a 3-D printer
  • Amenable to manual, room temperature 3-D printing and subtractive techniques for fine detail after printing, which is hard to accomplish with plastics
  • Mica powders do not affect viscosity of alginic acid, which leads to a dynamic range of pigment loading
  • Ideal art media for everyone—from kids, to DIYers, to professional artists


additive manufacturing; biomaterials, 3D printing, polymers, 2D printing, seaweed, art ink; art material, technology transfer


Advanced Manufacturing
Advanced Materials

Market Sectors

Advanced Manufacturing