Chemistry, Materials & Packaging
UCSD Undergrads Create First Algae-Based Sustainable Surfboard

San Diego is home to a robust surfing industry and now, thanks to a collaboration with UC San Diego’s biology and chemistry students, the city is also home to the world’s first algae-based surfboard.

The prototype was publicly introduced last week to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer at San Diego Symphony Hall, where he hosted the premiere of the National Geographic “World’s Smart Cities: San Diego” documentary. The program, which features innovations from UC San Diego, is scheduled to air April 25 and May 2 on the National Geographic Channel.

“Our hope is that Mayor Faulconer will put this surfboard in his office so everyone can see how San Diego is a hub not only for innovation, but also for collaboration at many different levels,” said Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology and algae geneticist at UC San Diego, who headed the effort to produce the surfboard. “An algae-based surfboard perfectly fits with the community and our connection with the ocean and surfing.”

Mayfield, an avid surfer for the past 45 years, joined Cardiff professional surfer Rob Machado and Marty Gilchrist of Oceanside-based Arctic Foam, the largest surfboard blank manufacturer in North America, to present the board to Mayor Faulconer.

Several months ago, undergraduate biology students working in Mayfield’s lab to produce biofuels from algae joined fellow chemistry undergrads to figure out how to make the precursor of the polyurethane foam core of a surfboard from algae oil. Typically, polyurethane surfboards are made entirely from petroleum.

“Most people don’t realize that petroleum is algae oil,” explained Mayfield. “It’s just fossilized, 300 million to 400 million years old and buried deep in underground.”

Chemistry and biochemistry professors Michael Burkart and Robert Pomeroy, whose labs help students recycle waste oil into a biodiesel that powers some UCSD buses, first determined how to chemically change the oil obtained from laboratory algae into different kinds of “polyols.” Mixed with a catalyst and silicates in the right proportions, these polyols expand into a foam-like substance that hardens into the polyurethane that forms a surfboard’s core.

To obtain additional high-quality algae oil, Mayfield called on Solazyme, Inc, the California-based producer of renewable, sustainable oils and ingredients, which supplied a gallon of algae oil to make the world’s first algae-based surfboard blank. After some clever chemistry at UCSD, Arctic Foam successfully produced and shaped the surfboard core and glassed it with a coat of fiberglass and renewable resin.

“As surfers, more than any other sport, you are totally connected and immersed in the ocean environment,” Mayfield said. “And yet your connection to that environment is through a piece of plastic made from fossil fuels,” a common frustration amid the surfing community.

However, with this new technology, surfers can have a board that, at least at its core, comes from a sustainable, renewable source. “In the future, we’re thinking about 100 percent of the surfboard being made that way — the fiberglass will come from renewable resources, the resin on the outside will come from a renewable resource,” Mayfield said.

This, combined with advancements from Patagonia - on a plant-based alternative to a neoprene wetsuit - and Volcom’s Deep Blue Surfing Events™ and strides in quantifying its environmental profit and loss, could see the emergence of a truly sustainable surf industry.

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