Center for Algal Innovations’ “Fab Lab” Builds Ideas into Reality


On a blustery, bright December day in East Boothbay, Maine, the greenhouse at Bigelow Laboratory is warm and comfortable. The racks that line the walls are empty now, but in a few months, they’ll be full of algae of all species and origins. And in the basement, even in the depth of winter, researchers are hard at work.

The greenhouse is the home of the Center for Algal Innovations’ Fabrication Lab, a design studio-cum-machine shop-cum-science lab that’s helping build the equipment that drives CAI and Bigelow Laboratory writ large.

Researchers use ground-penetrating radar

CAI evolved out of Bigelow Laboratory’s National Center for Marine Algae and Microbiota, which curates the world’s most diverse collection of marine algae and shares samples with researchers and companies around the world. While directing NCMA, Senior Research Scientist Mike Lomas realized that there was a need to support businesses in translating the promising research and potential coming out of the NCMA collection into commercial applications.

“We made CAI to be able to bridge that gap, to help others leverage the potential of the algal strains and to do research that we felt was important,” said Robert Schmedicke, managing director of technology development for CAI and the de facto head of the Fabrication Lab. “But then we needed a place to build the equipment and systems to do that work.”

Researchers use ground-penetrating radar

Thus, the “Fab Lab” was born, turning the old storage space below the greenhouse into an active design studio with everything from a table saw to a 3D printer. Today, the Fab Lab provides R&D space for CAI scientists and enables the team to better serve the needs of commercial and research partners at Bigelow Laboratory and beyond.

Currently, there are all manner of projects happening at the Fab Lab, from a programmable system for monitoring oyster growth to a prototype for an algae biofilm that could help water treatment plants remove microplastics. There’s also a lot of interest in developing new, non-invasive ways to monitor algae. To that end, the team has designed and 3D-printed custom growth chambers for algae with built-in sensors for remotely and continuously monitoring conditions.

Some ongoing projects are for CAI-led experiments, but Schmedicke and the Fab Lab are also engaging with external partners and other Bigelow Laboratory researchers to build equipment, design sensors, and develop and test new technologies for growing algae. Schmedicke says they’ve already worked with more than half of the senior research scientists at Bigelow Laboratory on specific projects and have begun early conversations with several more.

Researchers use ground-penetrating radar

“In addition to partnering with clients around the world, we support all the research that goes on here at the institute by serving as an in-house resource,” Schmedicke said. “We’re building everything from little hard-to-get parts, all the way up to brand new equipment that didn’t exist before.”

Some of those new devices may even go onto become commercially available products. Often, Schmedicke said, researchers come to him to help design a solution to a problem they’re facing and realize that other researchers are as well. CAI is able to offer the engineering and business support to turn that idea into a marketable solution.

Researchers use ground-penetrating radar

Although still in its infancy, Schmedicke and Lomas have big plans for what the Fab Lab will become. Part of those future aspirations include expanding the business accelerator, where companies at all stages are turning their ideas into real products using the biological and business expertise of CAI and the design capacity of the Fab Lab to build physical prototypes and equipment.

It’s an ambitious idea, but Schmedicke says the team is more than up for the task.

“It’s been great that people have come with different skill sets, and we’re seeing how they cross pollinate and can create new things together,” he said. “Everyone’s been really excited to provide the support researchers and entrepreneurs need to accelerate innovation around the exciting commercial potential of algae.”