Growing Foam

Are we on the cusp of an algae-based surfboard revolution?

That ectoplasmic-looking goo is well on it's way to becoming a surfboard, thanks to the research by Stephen Mayfield. Photo: Burgess
That ectoplasmic-looking goo is well on it’s way to becoming a surfboard, thanks to the research by Stephen Mayfield. Photo: Burgess

All petroleum is made up of algae (and other micro critters—sorry, not dinosaurs, despite what you may have heard) that's been fossilized and compressed and heated over eons. Once sucked from the earth, petroleum is refined into, among other things, polyurethane (PU), the compound that makes up the foam used in the overwhelming majority of surfboards. PU is great for surfboards, terrible for the environment. But scientists have recently learned how to convert lab-grown algae oil into PU that's far easier on the environment. Algae is grown in big ponds, harvested, then subjected to heat and pressure to cleave its macromolecules into monomers that…look, it's chemistry, it's really complicated. The point is, algae-oil production doesn't create all the toxic byproducts and greenhouse gasses of its fossil-fuel cousins. Plus, the foam made from algae-based PU is biodegradable. And now that foam can be made into surfboards.

Arctic Foam, an Oceanside, California-based blank manufacturer, recently teamed up with scientists at UC San Diego and a commercial algae-oil producer in Northern California called Solazyme to make what they insist is a perfectly viable alternative to traditional PU blanks. Judges at the 2015 Boardroom surfboard expo—a group that included Rob Machado, Greg Long, and Ryan Burch—were so impressed that they voted the algae board Best in Show in the Best Sustainability Advancement category. "PU foam remains the dominant material for surfboard blanks," said Michael Stewart, co-founder of Sustainable Surf. "Any significant improvement to its environmental performance could make a big impact—if widely adopted."

Traditionally, that last part—wide adoption—is the speed bump that slows down sustainable inroads into surfboard production. But Arctic Foam's algae blanks have the horsepower to roll over those bumps unimpeded. First, and probably most important for the surfboard-buying public, is price. "It turns out we can make an algae blank for less than 10 dollars more than a petroleum blank," said Stephen Mayfield, a director of the California Center for Algae Biotechnology at UCSD. "As long as the surfboard industry agrees to pass along this cost without amplifying it, these boards will cost almost exactly the same as a petroleum-based board."

The algae used as a substitute for traditional petroleum would allow for a much cleaner and greener surfboard. Photo: Burgess
The algae used as a substitute for traditional petroleum would allow for a much cleaner and greener surfboard. Photo: Burgess

The second advantage algae oil has is its relatively easy scalability. As you likely suspect, scientists didn't start researching algae-oil production because they wanted to build an eco-friendly surfboard. Algae oil is a major player in a race to discover affordable biofuels to wean us off the fossil-fuel teat. Lots of government and private funds are being pumped into labs to turn our little green friends into a cleaner, friendlier petroleum. It just so happened that Mayfield, who was already researching algae oil, is a dedicated surfer. When Arctic Foam starting sniffing around for algae-based PU, Mayfield was just the right surfer-scientist to helm the lab side of the project. And after prepping pond scum to power cars, making a little surfboard foam is nothing.

If all goes according to plan, Arctic Foam is confident that they're less than a year away from producing a significant amount of their blanks from algae foam. The algae oil simply stands in for a petroleum product Arctic already uses in their manufacturing process, so nothing at the factory has to change to put out algae blanks. Plus, early reports claim the foam is high quality enough to satisfy discriminating palates. "The second blank we made from the foam came out perfect," said Marty Gilchrist, head of business development at Arctic Foam. "On top of that, we were able to keep to the aesthetics of our current lineup, avoiding blanks that look like something made out of lawn clippings." This means the same bright-white PU blanks that customers expect and demand.

"In surfing, we are totally connected and immersed in the ocean environment, and yet our connection to that environment is through a piece of plastic made from fossil fuels," said Mayfield. "That is just not right, and we all know it." Soon enough, that connection might be a lot greener. Literally.