Scientists Develop First Algae-Based Surfboard

California Center for Algae Biotechnology Scientists of UCSD, along with Arctic Foam, Solazyme, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Biofuels Action Awareness Network, have unveiled algae as an alternative to fossil fuels in the manufacturing of surfboards. The surfboards were first shown at Copley Symphony Hall on Earth Day to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer during National Geographic’s “World’s Smart Cities: San Diego” documentary.

The majorative run-of-the-mill surfboards are produced with polyurethane and, as a product of petroleum, a fossil fuel. However, according to the U.S. Department of Energy, 500,000 polyurethane surfboard cores are made each year, and these can be produced with a half liter of algal oil — a more sustainable resource, as reported by Stephen Mayfield, the Director of Cal-CAB. 

Following this innovation comes the possibility to utilize algae’s properties in the conversion to polyols to perhaps increase surfboard performance. However, these algae-based polyols also have the potential to make various foams. Some uses of polyols include sealants and vehicle interiors, even adhesives.

Mayfield, a surfer of 45 years, told the UCSD Guardian how the relationship of the surfer and nature is disjointed.

“As a surfer, I never liked the idea that my connection with the ocean was through a plastic surfboard made from petroleum,” Mayfield said. “That is not sustainable and damages the environment, the exact opposite of what surfing and the oceans are all about.”

In a video by UCSD, Mayfield discussed how the venture was possible through the joint efforts of UCSD, Cal-CAB, Arctic Foam, Solazyme, the U.S. Department of Energy and the Biofuels Action Awareness Network.

“So this is the great thing about this project: Not any one of the groups that participated in it could have done this on their own,” Mayfield said. “As biologists, we can produce the algae oil, but then we need the chemist to convert that into polyols, then we need the surfboard companies to blow that into foam and shape the surfboard, we needed Solazyme — the big commercial algae company to give us enough oil to do this so we can do it at big scale — so that we could make a board that is sustainable and that comes from algae as a biological source.”

In the interview with the Guardian, Stephen discussed one of the challenges they faced.

“Getting enough algae oil to do all of the research to make polyols and then getting enough to actually make two surfboards,” Mayfield said. “Fortunately we were able to collaborate with Solazyme, a commercial algae company based in San Francisco, and they have lots of algae oil and gave us several gallons.”

The result was a surfboard regarded as a “perfect 10” by early reviewers, with the quality of being slightly more flexible — something valued by more seasoned surfers, as reported by the U.S. Department of Energy.

In Mayfield’s interview with the Guardian, he had discussed how the result was extremely close to his original goals. 

“The organic chemists that worked on this — Skip Pomeroy and Mike Burkart of [the] UCSD chemistry department — did a great job making these polyols,” Mayfield said. “These had to be close, or surfers would not use the boards.”

The production-time expectancy is about the same, with algae oil being a little more expensive, yet being carbon neutral in comparison, with durability believed to last just as long, though needing proof, according to Mayfield.

Discussing what was after the project, Mayfield weighed in on the variety of algae oils and the resulting polyols.

“What’s next: The physical properties of the final polyurethane is completely determined by the chemistry of the starting oil and the chemistry of the polyols — the monomers used to make polyurethane,” Mayfield said. “Because different algae have different oils, we have the opportunity to make a variety of polyols, and that means polyurethane with different physical properties,” Mayfield says.  

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