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The algae-based sustainable surfboard

April 21, 2015

Stephen Mayfield, professor of biology at UC San Diego, surfs a normal, petroleum-based surfboard in Las Flores, El Salvador.

Stephen Mayfield, professor of biology at UC San Diego, surfs a normal, petroleum-based surfboard in Las Flores, El Salvador.

UC San Diego’s efforts to produce innovative and sustainable solutions to the world’s environmental problems have resulted in a partnership with the region’s surfing industry to create the world’s first algae-based, sustainable surfboard.

The surfboard was publicly unveiled and presented to San Diego Mayor Kevin Faulconer Tuesday evening, just before Earth Day, at the San Diego Symphony Hall, where the Mayor hosted the premiere of the National Geographic “World’s Smart Cities: San Diego” documentary. The documentary, which features innovations from UC San Diego and others in the region, is scheduled to air Saturday, April 25 on the National Geographic Channel.

“Our hope is that Mayor Faulconer will put this surfboard in his office right behind his desk so everyone who comes to San Diego can see how San Diego is a hub not only for innovation, but collaboration at many different levels that allowed us to make something like an algae-based surfboard,” said Stephen Mayfield, a professor of biology and algae geneticist at UC San Diego who headed the effort to produce the surfboard. “It perfectly fits with the community and our connection with the ocean and surfing. And it also shows the biotechnology and innovation that we can bring to bear here in San Diego in a very collaborative way.”

Mayfield, an avid surfer for the past 45 years; Cardiff professional surfer Rob Machado, and Marty Gilchrist of Arctic Foam, an Oceanside, CA company that is the largest surfboard blank manufacturer in North America and that produced the algae-based polyurethane foam core and glassed the board, presented the board to Mayor Faulconer.

The project began several months ago at UC San Diego when undergraduate biology students working in Mayfield’s laboratory to produce biofuels from algae joined a group of undergraduate chemistry students to solve a basic chemistry problem: how to make the precursor of the polyurethane foam core of a surfboard from algae oil. Polyurethane surfboards today are made exclusively 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.”

Students from the laboratories of Michael Burkart, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry, and Robert “Skip” Pomeroy, a chemistry instructor who helps students recycle waste oil into a biodiesel that powers some UC San Diego 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.

Workers at Arctic Foam in Oceanside, CA prepare the world’s first algae surfboard blank for the application of a fiberglass shell. Credit: Erik Jepsen, UC San Diego

Workers at Arctic Foam in Oceanside, CA prepare the world’s first algae surfboard blank for the application of a fiberglass shell. Credit: Erik Jepsen, UC San Diego

To obtain additional high-quality algae oil, Mayfield, who directs a research entity at UC San Diego called the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, or “Cal-CAB,” a state-wide collaboration of academic and biotech scientists working on algae, called on Solazyme, Inc., a California-based biotech that produces renewable, sustainable oils and ingredients, to see if the company could supply a gallon of algae oil to make the world’s first algae-based surfboard blank. Solazyme agreed and after some clever chemistry at UC San Diego, Arctic Foam successfully produced and shaped the surfboard core at its factory in Ensenada, Mexico, then brought the shaped blank to its headquarters in Oceanside to be glassed with a coat of fiberglass and renewable resin.

Although the board’s core is made from algae, it is pure white and indistinguishable from most plain petroleum-based surfboards. That’s because the oil from algae, like soybean or safflower oils, is clear.

“In the future, we could make the algae surfboards green by adding a little color from the green algae to showcase their sustainability,” said Mayfield. “But right now we wanted to make it as close as we could to the real thing.”

Besides a UC San Diego logo, the board bears logos from Arctic Foam, Solazyme, Cal-CAB, the U.S. Department of Energy, which funds Mayfield’s research through its Bioenergy Technologies Office, and the Biofuels Action Awareness Network, the UC San Diego student organization that help produces the polyols from the algae oil.

“The great thing about this project is that it could only be accomplished by all of these groups working together; none of them could have done this on their own,” said Mayfield. “We as biologists can produce the algae oil, but then we need the chemists to convert that into polyols, then we needed the surfboard companies to blow that into foam and shape the boards. We needed Solazyme, the big commercial algae company, to give us enough oil so we could do this at a commercial scale.

“Many of us live here because of this fantastic research university and nearby research institutes,” said Mayfield. “This is a biotechnology hub so a lot of us have a biotech background. But it’s also just a fantastic beach community and the surfing here is world class. The surfing community here is very tight-knit as is the biotech community in San Diego. So this surfboard represents a wonderful fusion of all of these things.

“One of the things we focus on very heavily here at UC San Diego is not just how do we produce things like polyols but how do we do it in a sustainable fashion. So all of the research we do here has that as an underlying principle. We try to do this with less fresh water because we produce these algae in brackish water. We try to do this with less energy input. All of this is so we can have a sustainable future.”

Mayfield said that like other surfers, he has long been faced with a contradiction: His connection to the pristine ocean environment requires a surfboard made from petroleum.

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

But now, he says, surfers can have a way to surf a board that, at least at its core, comes from a sustainable, renewable source. “This shows that we can still enjoy the ocean, but do so in an environmentally sustainable way,” he added.

“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.

“The really interesting thing is that the chemical and physical properties of the surfboard depend upon the chemical and physical properties of the oil you made it with,” he adds. “And because we can engineer algae we can engineer our algae to make different oils and that means we can change the physical attributes of the final product. So I think the really exciting thing is that now instead of just relying on the one oil we have, now we can think of engineering these surfboards with new physical properties – some of them maybe stiffer, some more flexible, some with more rigidity. And when you change the physical properties you’re going to change the way the surfboard reacts with the wave. So I think that with these surfboards we’re going to be able to enhance the properties of surfing and take it to a whole new level.”

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