Original article published 3 December, 2021
[5-10 minute read]
Introducing Emile Theau, a nanotechnology and data recovery systems engineer who has developed environmentally sustainable surfboards and is the Co-Founder of Sine Surf. The idea was born after Emile discovered that products currently available on the market are environmentally damaging and are at odds with the nature-loving surfing community.
Emile's recently been riding a wave of success with awards and contests, such as the HP Generation Impact Incubator (an initiative of Ocean Impact Organisation) and Hatch: Taronga Accelerator Program in addition to some positive media coverage. By all accounts it's been a hard earned but passion-driven journey leading up to now, with no sign of slowing down. We caught up with Emile recently to learn more about the origins of Sine Surf, his advice for anyone with an idea for a project, and his plans going forward…
Can you tell us a bit about yourself and Alastair's journey from taking an idea, through to making and selling sustainable surfboards?
I'm a recent graduate from the University of Sydney in chemical engineering and nanotechnology, and I'm now building Sine Surf. After snapping a brand-new surfboard of mine in early 2020, I became interested in why surfboards were so disposable - and began doing some research into how they're made. I was quite surprised with the amount of plastic waste and emissions produced during the manufacturing process - and thought this to be a strange contradiction, as surfers are mostly ocean and nature loving people.
I was interested to try and explore new methods to make surfboards and thought it would be well backed from my university studies. Early on the journey, I met Alastair Pilley who has a background in automation and manufacturing and is now my business partner.
We began pushing hollow wooden boards to their extremes by testing how light and how quickly we could make them, and by testing a multitude of different hollow structures. About eleven prototypes were made before we finally found what we thought was the best and quickest way a hollow wooden surfboard can be constructed.
In recent months we've been fine-tuning the processes, testing various shapes and have even begun using another shaper's designs (Steve O’Donnell) and implementing our technologies. It's been a lot of work, but it's been work that we enjoy. We can now confidently say that we're making the most sustainable surfboards that you can buy, and they surf better than we could've imagined!
Your surfboards look very impressive. Sustainably sourced timber, Australian made bio-resin and natural earth pigments. Can you explain why you chose these particular materials over others?
We chose the materials that would allow us to make the most sustainable and high performing surfboards. We started by looking at what materials were sustainable by looking at waste and the embodied carbon. Timber seemed like the natural choice because of its beauty and its ability to sequester carbon during its growth. About half the weight of timber is carbon which is extracted carbon dioxide from the atmosphere during the photosynthesis process.
We chose to use Paulownia timber because it's a fast-growing, plantation timber that can reach a harvestable size after only six years. It also has the ideal material properties for making sustainable surfboards. Paulownia is about 285 kg.m3 and the second lightest timber in the world after Balsa wood, which is about 150 kg/m3. We chose Paulownia rather than Balsa because it's resistant to indentation (has higher hardness) and does not require fibreglass finish if a suitably thick deck thickness is applied.
After many months of prototyping, we're now able to properly engineer the hollow structure so that the boards are strong and just as light as traditional foam and fibreglass surfboards. I also played around with some marine grade, water-based varnishes but eventually decided on an Australian made bio-epoxy resin called Kinitex Eco-135, because of its higher durability. We're mixing this with nanosilica to improve the hardness and tensile strength of the epoxy. This allows us to use only one-third of the resin typically used on surfboards.
The natural pigments were an easy choice. We found that natural colouring looked best on the timber, and that ochres were the most sustainable source of colouring out there.
What are the biggest challenges in transforming your surfboard business into a large-scale production model?
This is still ongoing! We believe that we've automated the process as much as possible and want to develop a production line over the next few months. We've found a place on Sydney's Northern Beaches that we hope to move into over Christmas. We'll also be using our prize money from Ocean Impact Organisation's incubator initiative to buy some larger machinery that will allow us to make surfboards much faster. We're aiming to make 20 boards a week by the middle of 2022, and to keep scaling from there.
Some of the biggest challenges so far has been the shapes of our surfboards and the weight to an appropriate level. We only want to sell the best boards we can make, and it's taken a lot of fine tuning. Luckily, we've had help from some of Sydney's based shapers and surfers as they've been giving us advice and feedback as we develop the product. Furthermore, the use of a natural material makes things more difficult. Sometimes the timber warps, making it difficult to machine, and also when sanding there are some parts of the timber that are less dense than others - which makes achieving a smooth rail-line a bit more challenging.
What's your advice for anyone out there with an idea that needs leverage to the next level of becoming a solid project?
I think that you should look at the fundamentals of your project first. This includes questions like is the product unique, why is it better and are people interested in it. Then it's important to look at the financials of the production process and to consider the material costs and labour costs together.
The most important thing is to make sure it's something that you love and that you're passionate about. Developing a product takes countless hours of work and it would be impossible to pull off if you didn't enjoy the process. It's a hard journey but also very rewarding.
Finally, in your opinion - what is your ideal scenario for the future of surfboard design and manufacturing?
Some small progress has been made with foams and resins. However, these changes are often minimal and the words 'eco' and 'sustainable' are thrown around all over the surfing industry. A manufacturer might call their boards sustainable if only 25% of the foam blank is recycled or if only 20% of the resin is derived from plants. This is a step in the right direction but often feels like this is just a marketing strategy.
We've looked thoroughly for any kind of sustainable foams and resins. The best alternatives we can think of, for foam, are 100% recycled industrial foam insulation or PLA foam [Polylactic Acid] that's produced from corn starch and is biodegradable in very specific conditions, requiring a specialised processing facility. This is far from price competitive however, and still pose their own environmental issues. I cannot think of another way to make a sustainable surfboard than the way we are currently making them at Sine Surf.
From my understanding of the materials currently available to manufacturers, a completely sustainable industry is not possible yet. But just like our energy markets, it could be in 20 years from now. The industry could, however, be far more sustainable than it is right now if more people pivot to use materials like timber, recycled foams, hollow structures, higher bio-content resins and sustainable cloths. It's important that both surfers and manufacturers make the change together if we want a truly sustainable future for surfing.
Thank you, Emile, and best of luck to you and Alastair with the Sine Surf adventure! It's exciting to see timber surfboards grow in popularity and challenge the status quo.