Graduation, Sunscreen, Green Algae and Batman

June 02, 2012
By: Rich Steeves

The month of June means different things to different people. For fans of the NHL, it’s the Stanley Cup Finals; for dads around the United States, it’s Father’s Day; and for high school and college seniors, it means graduation time and, perhaps, one last chance to hit the beach before heading to the next phase in life – all too often a small desk in a dark room, whether it’s a classroom or an office.

But, as perhaps the most famous graduation speech of all time tells us, the best piece of advice we can give to graduates is one that applies to beachgoers as well: Always wear sunscreen. And, thanks to researchers at the Department of Chemistry at the University of Gothenburg – and a little assist from Batman – recent grads may soon be able to use the power of the sun to protect against UV light.

Anna Borje, a Swedish chemist, was inspired by, of all things, the functionality of the Batmobile, and hit upon using a type of photo-sensitive green algae as a form of sunscreen. Typical sunscreen, which is made from titanium oxide, breaks down and forms byproducts that are both allergenic and toxic to human cells. This discovery prompted Borje to develop a new product that would activate only when hit by the sun’s rays and then acts as a barrier against UV light.

The prototype is rich in the pigment scytonemin, which is found in cyanobacteria. Rather than becoming toxic when exposed to light, the photo physical and photochemical properties of the pigment create a natural barrier that blocks the sun’s rays. While not as effective as staying out of the sun or wearing clothing, this new technology, if perfected, would be a safer, more natural form of solar protection, and something that new grads could wear to the beach in their last days of freedom and throughout their lives, decreasing the potential risk for skin cancer.

How, then, was this product inspired by Batman? I’ll let Anna Borje answer that one: “We have bat car as a model. It has great shields that fold out when needed,” she said. “Likewise, we want to create barriers against UV light, and that are safe for humans to use.”



So, while Bruce Wayne has little to worry about, fighting crime at night and all, someday, the class of 2012 can speak at their children’s graduation, crediting the Caped Crusader – and humble old algae – for helping them fulfill the most important piece of graduation advice out there.