“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 who headed the effort to produce the surfboard.
The project began several months ago 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.”
UC San Diego’s efforts to produce innovative and sustainable solutions to the world’s environmental problems has resulted in a partnership with the region’s surfing industry to create the world’s first algae-based, sustainable surfboard.
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.
To obtain additional high-quality algae oil, Mayfield, who directs the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, called on Solazyme, 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 the university, 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.
Besides a UC San Diego logo, the board bears logos from Arctic Foam, Solazyme, the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, the U.S. Department of Energy, which funds Mayfield’s research, and the Biofuels Action Awareness Network, the 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.”
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. But now, he explained, surfers can have 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 said.
The surfboard will be publicly unveiled and presented to Faulconer at Copley Symphony Hall at the premiere of the National Geographic “World’s Smart Cities: San Diego” documentary.