CJ in his element. Salt Lake City, UT. Photo: Pep Fujas (@pepfujas)
Charles “CJ” Rand’s passion for the vast world of materials is palpable. His knowledge runs deep (yes, PhD level deep), but when he walks you through his lab, his demeanor is always welcoming and unintimidating. Outside of the box thinking and experimentation leads to innovation, and nobody knows that better than CJ.
Where are you from originally?
Born in Cleveland and grew up in Stow, Ohio.
How’d you develop a love for wintersports?
I never skied/snowboarded growing up as my winters were always tied up playing ice hockey. I took a year off in between undergrad and graduate school to work interesting jobs. In the spring and summer, I had a 15 mile walking route as a mailman in East Akron, Ohio. In the winter, I worked maintenance at Brandywine Ski Resort.
At Brandywine, I fired up the backup engines for the lifts, tested and fixed the lifts, and drove the groomer. One day after work while having a beer in the bar I decided to try out snowboarding, my friend Chris (who went on to be an Olympic snowboard coach for China and South Korea) gave me some pointers and sent me on my way. I learned on a heavy Burton Brushie DJ snowboard that I borrowed from the maintenance manager. After a day of two I found myself in the park hitting jumps and riding the mini-pipe. I was hooked.
In graduate school I got the Killington/Mt.Snow season pass and spent a couple days a week driving up to Vermont from Amherst, MA. At that point I started taking trips every year with my brothers, with the goal of hitting every ski resort in the West. While it was fun to snowboard the art museum steps in Philly during the rare snowstorm, I really enjoy living in Salt Lake City now with its access to the outdoors.
How are your sidewalls made? Salt Lake City, UT. Photo: Jay Dash (@jaydashphotography)
Tell us a bit about how you entered the world of materials.
I grew up just north of Akron, Ohio, which is known as the “Polymer Valley.” Goodyear and Firestone were founded in Akron and an entire polymer industry developed there shortly after.
In high school, I had the opportunity to enter college early, but instead took a two year polymer vocational course that trains high school students to work in the local industry. As part of that program, I worked at Hudson Extrusion running an extruder making polyethylene tubing. Following high school, I went on to the University of Akron where I got a BS in Chemical engineering with a Polymer Specialization. While at the University of Akron I did a three semester co-op with Geon/PolyOne, where I worked on replacing lead as a thermal stabilizer in PVC compounds, developed high performance PVC plenum jacketing, and developed PVC color concentrates.
My mentor at Geon inspired me to pursue a PhD in Polymer science so I went on to the University of Massachusetts for graduate school. While in graduate school I worked in Al Crosby's lab, where my thesis focused on the friction and adhesion of patterned soft elastomeric surfaces. Following graduate school I went on to join the rotational program at Rohm & Haas, which was acquired by Dow Chemical shortly after. While at R&H/Dow, I developed encapsulants and backsheets for photovoltaics, insulation binder free of added formaldehyde, plasticizer for high performance concrete, binders for the acquisition layer of diapers, quick setting elastomeric roof coatings, and flame retardant intumescent coatings for building products.
For many of us, WNDR Alpine is a way to combine two passions. Salt Lake City, UT. Photo: Pep Fujas (@pepfujas)
Tell us about joining WNDR Alpine.
I joined WNDR Alpine in February of 2020. There were many factors that brought me to join. The vertical integration of the company, the potential of the molecular foundry, and the passionate employees. From my first visit, I could tell this simply wasn't a greenwashing PR stunt as is usually the case, but rather a passionate team working to do the right thing. Seeing the group go the extra mile collecting waste material and finding ways to repurpose was inspiring, as these types of activities are typically neither easy or profitable.
What do you do for fun in the mountains these days?
Winter is spent snowboarding with my family or splitboarding with my colleagues. I hope to get back to playing hockey when things open up again. In the summer I hike, skateboard, and bike with my family and friends.
Describe your day to day role in the development of WNDR Alpine products.
I design, prepare and mechanically test chemical formulations for our algal materials. This involves constant collaboration with the ski building team as we look to make the best materials possible for wintersport applications.
How do we test and validate our materials and products?
We start on small lab scale experiments, and once a material shows promise it is protyped into a ski. The ski is then ridden and broken to ensure performance and ensure there are not any issues that may be present that wouldn't be noticed in laboratory scale testing. Once a material has been vetted in a prototype, the best performing materials are brought up to production scale and the whole testing cycle is repeated. This is done to ensure the final material made has the same if not better performance when compared to the small initial laboratory sample.
Do you have a favorite piece of testing equipment?
The Instron or the Charpy/Izod. It's fun to break stuff - especially with the intent to make better materials!
The Charpy measures how much energy it takes to break a sample of a given material. By measuring how far the pendulum swings backward after it impacts the sample, one can calculate how much energy the material absorbed as it broke. Salt Lake City, UT. Video: Xan Marshland (@xanmarshland)
What are you most proud of in your role as a materials innovator?
Figuring out ways to make these materials work. The algal materials are not a drop-in replacement for petroleum based materials. You have to get creative to fully unlock the potential of these materials and utilize them to develop materials that have unique properties. It's not an easy task and that's specifically why the vertical integration of the company is so powerful. We can design, implement, and then iterate to create the best materials possible.
What performance characteristics of our materials should backcountry athletes be the most excited about?
We initially benchmarked incumbent materials and looked to match or exceed various performance metrics with our materials. For me, the real excitement is that we were able to achieve this with algal polyol being the main polyol component in both the cast sidewalls and rigid foam. As we continue to innovate, we continue to not only improve the bio content of our products, but also the mechanical performance of both materials.
Innovations in materials and fabrication are happening simultaneously at the Design Lab. Our Algal Wall is initially produced in liquid form, allowing us to pour it around the core before it hardens. This reduces waste and provides a stronger bond with the core. Salt Lake City, UT. Photo: Jay Dash (@jaydashphotography)
From a materials perspective, what makes WNDR Alpine unique?
WNDR Alpine is unique in that the materials being developed are specifically for maximum performance in the skis. Generally something off the shelf from a large chemical company is slightly tweaked and used for ski manufacturing, at best. While this may address the application, it can lead to production nightmares.
Since we are vertically integrated, we design our materials so they can seamlessly be integrated into production and produce the best performing product.