Why this Utah brand is using algae to make skis

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Athlete Jack Strauss tests out WNDR Alpine skis, photo by Carson Meyer, courtesy of WNDR Alpine

SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – WNDR Alpine is working to revolutionize the winter sports industry, one molecule at a time. Founded in 2019, the Salt Lake-based organization utilizes oils mined from microalgae – as opposed to the industry standard, petroleum – as an essential component in the ski-making process.

Though it may sound futuristic and nearly incomprehensible without an advanced science degree, the process of making oils from microalgae is a fermentation-based process similar to that of brewing beer, says Xan Marshland, WNDR Alpine’s brand development manager.

“If you picture a microbrewery, where you have big, stainless steel fermentation tanks, it looks quite a lot like that,” he says.

Microalgae are single-celled microscopic organisms found in water. In order to make oils from them, the team at WNDR feeds the microalgae sugar, and the oil is produced through fermentation – just like yeast is turned to alcohol in the beer-making process. By controlling aspects like habitat and nutritional inputs, WNDR can control the physical properties of the oil outputs.

And not only does replacing petroleum with microalgae have benefits for the environment, the team at WNDR Alpine argues that it has benefits for ski quality, too. According to Marshland, petroleum gives ski manufacturers very little control over the structure and functionality of the finished product. With the oils made from microalgae, on the other hand, makers have the ability to tailor the materials to fit a variety of ski specifications.

“You can actually get oils that you can’t get from ordinary petroleum,” he says. “We have a huge advantage over ordinary petroleum-based materials because we can actually design our oils and then design the materials we make those oils into around specific performance characteristics we are targeting.”

The ski itself is made from algal polyurethane and domestically sourced aspen. The polyurethane is poured as a liquid, which bonds the core and sidewall of the ski together, allowing for more durability. According to Marshland, this design makes a ski that is lightweight but also doesn’t “chatter” against the snow at high speeds. These qualities are ideal for backcountry skis, which need to be both stable and quick.

“Having a ski that is more stable, that you can descend more aggressively on, without adding a bunch of weight, that’s something that’s a big differentiator for us,” Marshand says. “It’s not just more sustainable for the sake of being sustainable, but it’s actually being enabled by the bio-based materials we’re putting into the ski.”

Construction of a WNDR Alpine ski, video courtesy of WNDR Alpine

WNDR Alpine is a division of Checkerspot, a biomaterials startup based in Alameda, California that was founded in 2016. WNDR’s three founding members, Matt Sterbenz, Daniel Malmrose, and Marshland met while working at Checkerspot, and founded the ski brand out of a desire to apply microalgae technology to a consumer context.

“We intend to disrupt and shake up the industry,” says Marshland. “It has, for too long, in my opinion, been relying on petroleum-based inputs.”

According to Marshland, WNDR Alpine has been garnering increased attention across the outdoor industry. They are in conversation with several other ski and snowboard companies, discussing ways to implement algal technology in their products. Marshland says that, in coming seasons, skiers and snowboarders can expect to see bio-based materials going into products from other brands, too.

“This is something that we very much intend to share with others in the outdoor industry,” Marshland says. “We fundamentally believe that the performance of bio-based materials should not be exclusive. We believe in the democratization of materials, and that starts with sharing our bio-based polyurethane with others.”

Marshland notes that when this technology is more readily available, it will be less cost prohibitive for both manufacturers and consumers. And when it is, outdoor recreation products will benefit as much as the environment will.

“The goal with WNDR Alpine was to prove these materials can, in fact, outperform petroleum-based materials in the outdoor industry, thereby demonstrating that the more sustainable option is also the better option,” Marshland says.

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