It’s officially summertime, and the surf is up! As you head to the beach this year, you may find some new products at the surf shop, made of bioplastics from algae.
Two years ago, Energy Department-funded scientists at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) California Center Algae Biotechnology debuted a sustainable solution for surfers looking to “go green”—algae-based surfboards.
And this summer they are putting those surfboards on the market.
To date, 45 surfboards have been tested by the top professional surfers, who not only loved them, but couldn’t tell any performance differences between the algae boards and the ones made from petrochemical plastics. Now UCSD’s manufacturing partners are making these algae-based boards available for purchase at prices competitive with standard boards.
How Are They Made
UCSD chemists have perfected how to convert oils from algae into the polyurethane foam that form a surfboard’s core. The cores are then sent to Arctic Foam, a surfboard manufacturer, to shape and coat them with fiberglass and a renewable plant-based resin.
Almost all standard surfboards are made from fossil fuel-derived polyurethane foam. By creating polyurethane from algae instead, the UCSD scientists have demonstrated that they can displace fossil fuel-derived materials while still meeting consumer demands for both performance and price.
The UCSD team has been able to achieve a biobased content of 28% per surfboard, exceeding the 25% content requirement for a USDA Certified Biobased Product label through the BioPreferred program. The USDA’s BioPreferred program seeks to increase development, purchase, and use of biobased products that reduces our nation’s reliance on petroleum, increases the use of renewable agricultural resources, and contributes to reducing adverse environmental and health impacts.
Now that the algae surfboards are on the market, the UCSD team is focusing on diversifying their bioplastics technology by developing another summer favorite —flip flops.
The team hopes to debut their environmentally-friendly, biobased flip flops by the end of the summer. Currently, the UCSD prototype flip flops rely on standard petrochemical soles under the bioplastic cushion because of their durability, but the team is working hard on figuring out how to make algae foam both comfortable, and tough enough to hit the sand.
The UCSD team is looking for additional partners to provide the necessary algae oils to expand their commercialization potential and market reach. Surfboard and other plastics manufacturers will prove to be ready customers when Energy Department-funded companies currently researching sustainable algae cultivation technologies begin to commercialize biomass production. Early stage research and development in optimizing algal strains for specialty products could lead to breakthroughs in biobased product markets.