UC San Diego students help produce the world's first algae-based surfboard

Surfing wave
CC BY 2.0 kellinahandbasket

Instead of using a conventional polyurethane core, this sustainable surfboard starts with an algae-based foam blank.

Like quite a few outdoor sports, surfing is dependent on petroleum-based materials for the majority of its equipment, which is rather ironic, considering how many surfers are vocal environmental advocates. But if the success of the work of a group of undergraduate chemistry and biology students at UC San Diego, in collaboration with an algae biotech company and a surfboard blank manufacturer, is any indication of things to come, surfboards may someday be much more sustainable and eco-friendly.

"As surfers more than any other sport, you are totally connected and immersed in the ocean environment, and yet your connection to that environment is through a piece of plastic made from fossil fuels." - Stephen Mayfield

Leading this effort is Stephen Mayfield, an algae geneticist and professor of biology at UC San Diego (UCSD), who is also a long-time avid surfer. For the project, Mayfield brought together a group of biology students working on algae biofuels with a group of chemistry students, in order to come up with a solution to the challenge of making an algae-based replacement for the foam core of a surfboard, which is traditionally made with polyurethane, a petroleum product.

The team of students, along with biochemistry professor Michael Burkart and chemistry instructor Robert "Skip" Pomeroy, began by establishing how to take algae oil from lab-grown algae and chemically change it into various kinds of polyols. These polyols, once mixed with silicates and a catalyst in precise proportions, can then expand into a "foam-like substance" that hardens into the polyurethane that makes up the core of a surfboard.

After determining the process in the lab, Mayfield's team obtained a gallon of "high quality algae oil" from Solazyme, a biotech firm specializing in the production of renewable and sustainable oils and other materials. That algae oil, which required "some clever chemistry" at UCSD before sending it on to Arctic Foam (the largest manufacturer of surfboard blanks in North America), was then successfully used by the company to build the world's first surfboard core made entirely from algae products. The blank was then shaped and coated with fiberglass and "renewable resin" by Avila Surfboards, after which it was "indistinguishable from most plain petroleum-based surfboards."

“An algae-based surfboard perfectly fits with the community and our connection with the ocean and surfing.” - Stephen Mayfield

This innovative surfboard was unveiled just before Earth Day last month, and presented to the Mayor of San Diego, Kevin Faulconer, at the premiere of the National Geographic documentary "World's Smart Cities: San Diego."

While the new algae-based surfboard still required fiberglass and resin to be surf-ready, Mayfield says that in the future, surfboards that are 100% renewable and sustainable may someday be possible with some additional research and innovation in fiberglass and resin technology.

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