Algae Skiing – A Revolution In The Winter Sports Industry?

WNDR Alpine skis are made using microalgae oil instead of petroleum. Photo The Salt Lake Tribune

Salt Lake City backcountry ski maker WNDR Alpine (pronounced wonder) has been using microalgae oil for its second year in ski production. The company says microalgae, used instead of oil in core and side plastics, are not only more environmentally friendly than their fossil fuel counterparts, but they can reduce waste and increase productivity.

The unique approach has already received endorsements from Freeskier and Backcountry magazines, as well as the Fast Company magazine’s Innovation Award.

The general manager of WNDR Alpine, Matt Sterbenz, a retired professional skier, was initially skeptical about Checkerspot, a California microalgae laboratory in Berkeley.

A vat of liquid polyurethane made from microalgae oil at the ski company’s manufacturing office in Salt Lake City. Photo The Salt Lake Tribune

But he signed the contract anyway, seeing this as an opportunity to revolutionize the ski industry. “Our goal is to provoke a global change in ski building materials.”

Microalgae in Checkerspot’s lab are grown in fermentation tanks, just like private breweries grow yeast. Unlike greens floating in lakes, these microalgae are white, but they are also rich in oils, which helps them float in the water.

Compared to oil, which takes a couple hundred million years to produce, a petri dish full of microalgae can be harvested in a week. The oil is squeezed out in the same way as olive oil. It can be mixed with other chemicals to make many composite compounds, just a couple of which are used in WNDR Alpine skis.

WNDR chemists develop exclusive formulations to give skis the desired characteristics. For example, the core of a ski is 41% biocarbon and the sidewalls are 60%, making them light enough for uphill but also strong enough. In addition, at low temperatures, microalgae compounds were found to be more stable than petroleum-based plastics or ABS.

Ski production at WNDR Alpine, photo by The Salt Lake Tribune

The algal oil composites that WNDR uses in the core and sides can be molded. They adhere naturally to the aspen wood found in the core of the skis. This helps to reduce waste – 1 kg from each ski, as well as to use some of this waste, for example, using shavings on the sidewalls.

While the new composite is still plastic and not biodegradable, the company is working on recovery.

WNDR was chosen by chance from other backcountry ski manufacturers. In July 2019, amid the rise of the backcountry equipment industry, WNDR Alpine launched its first Intention 110 ski. Less than a year later, as the Vital 100 was being prepared, the coronavirus pandemic closed ski resorts. Skiing in the resorts will become significantly more difficult this winter, with more people seeking refuge in the backcountry.

WNDR alpine skis await shipment from the company’s Salt Lake City office, photo by The Salt Lake Tribune

WNDR offers anyone who buys a pair of her skis for roughly $ 700, free backcountry training. The company also plans to release a snowboard and splitboard.

The pandemic plays into the hands of WNDR. Sporting goods manufacturers, including those whose supply chain has been disrupted due to the virus and trade problems with China, have begun dropping into a small store on 500 West Avenue. Recently, a worker was seen pouring an oil mixture of microalgae into wakeboard and snowboard molds from a reputable manufacturer.

WNDR Alpine plans to incorporate microalgae into everything from tennis shoes to jackets to reduce manufacturing costs and help the planet. Simply put, Sterbenz would like the industry to grow like algae.

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