Pure, beautiful algae oil. An untapped resource for our innovation. Photo: Karl Nielsen (@karlnielsenphotography)
What is the next logical application of our technology beyond skinning and grinning in the high alpine?
Making Oil From a Renewable Resource
Photo: Karl Nielsen (@karlnielsenphotography)
The first step is to remind ourselves that fundamentally, we're tapping into a new resource for biobased oil - microalgae. Just like the petroleum that came before it, what you can make with it seems almost limitless.
Think about it for a moment. Since humankind first started pumping this viscous black fluid out of the ground, petroleum has been used for fuels, plastics, composites, personal care products, paints, fabrics, coatings, and about a thousand other things that define our lives in the modern world. Petroleum seems almost inescapable in our technologies, economies, and in a culture built around the freedom afforded by internal combustion engines. Even our food supply is dependent on petroleum-byproduct fertilizers.
A Microbe Worth Celebrating
After growing for only 5-7 days, our microalgae cells are full to the brim with oil. With that oil, the possibilities are nearly limitless. Photo: Brian Matsumoto (@matsuimaging)
But before apathy sets in, it’s worth taking another moment to celebrate where we’re at - and the future that lies ahead.
Using biology, we’ve been able to harness a previously underutilized resource for oil that allows us to make new materials that the world has never seen. All of this happens by growing colonies of tiny single-celled organisms in a fermentation tank for roughly five days, until they’re nearly bursting with oil.
The petroleum industry has had a bit of a head start (approximately 164 years by our count1), but knowing that we’ve gone from oil to experimental material to hard-charging mountain tools in just a few years is more than enough motivation for us.
What’s more, we’ve been able to build materials that work better in our products than the petroleum-based materials we used to use - offering more stability without adding weight, less waste from our production processes, and stronger overall constructions.
What Else Can We Make?
With one type of oil, derived from one of thousands of existing strains of microalgae, members of our team at Checkerspot have already created biobased components to enhance performance in skis and boards. But there’s much more in the, um, pipeline.
As of late 2022, small-scale innovators and designers could start to play with materials derived from our microalgae with very little investment. Instead of guarding the materials with exclusivity, we'd rather see the world's creative thinkers find new applications far beyond the backcountry.
With our Pollinator Kits, we’ve already made experimental batches of climbing holds, surf fins, skateboard wheels, and more. Alameda, CA. Photo: Mark Fore (@markforephoto)
What else can we apply algae to? You might be surprised. Just take a quick inventory of all the petroleum products around you right this minute. Theoretically almost any of them could be replaced with biobased material. But beyond the obvious—objects made from petroleum plastics—there is a vast array of invisible applications that we don’t notice: adhesives, paints, treatments, and coatings that enhance, protect, or enable the function of most of the products in our daily lives. Everyday items from skincare ingredients, to toothpaste, to textile coatings all use petroleum—and early experimentation is showing that algae oil is a very promising alternative.
Of course, our roots are in the mountains, so we’re exploring new applications with the WNDR Alpine community—you—in mind.
How can we bring more algae-based innovation to backcountry explorers, athletes, and ecstatic alpine hedonists in a way that benefits our lives on and off the mountain? Where can we weave biology into the fabric of the petro-based world around us?
There’s lots more to tell. The story of biomaterials in the backcountry is just beginning.