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Algae-Based Flip-Flops Could Clean Up the Environment

Student and faculty researchers at UC San Diego have created the world’s first algae-based, renewable flip-flops. And they’re saying these shoes, the Triton, could help clean up the environment.

The team got the idea for the flip-flops after a successful collaboration two years ago produced the world’s first algae-based surfboard, which was widely received by the surfing community and is now being used by a number of professional surfers. And it’s hoping for an even greater win with the flip-flops.

The first samples of the Triton look like typical flip-flops. But these thongs are actually made from algae oil not petroleum like other flip-flops. Which means the carbon to construct them was pulled from the atmosphere rather than underground oil reserves, making them sustainable.

The researchers are hoping that when they begin full production on the shoes later this academic year, they’ll figure out how to also make their product biodegradable. “The idea we’re pursuing is to make these flip-flops in a way that they can be thrown into a compost pile and they will be eaten by microorganisms,” said Stephen Mayfield, a UC San Diego professor of biology who headed the research effort with Skip Pomeroy, a professor of chemistry and biochemistry.

If they’re successful, it would mean that the Triton won’t end up as nonbiodegradable trash in landfills, rivers and oceans around the globe like the 3 billion petroleum-based flip-flops currently being produced worldwide each year.

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“[Flip-flops are] the number one shoe in the world,” said Mayfield. “These are the shoes of a fisherman and a farmer. This is the number one shoe in India, the number one shoe in China and number one shoe in Africa. And, in fact, one of the largest pollutants in the ocean is polyurethane from flip-flops and other shoes that have been washed or thrown into rivers and flow into the ocean.”

Last April, when Mayfield and Pomeroy were attempting to prove the capability of their algae-based Triton Soles, they applied for and were awarded a $50,000 proof-of-concept grant from the University for their invention. Months later, during the summer, they collaborated with a group of their students to create the flip-flops in one of the University’s chemistry labs.

Building on their successful momentum, they partnered with fellow professor Michael Burkart to form Algenesis Materials, which employs students to work on the flip-flops and other algae-based projects currently in the works. The company has hired a Mexican shoe factory to produce a few thousand pairs of the Triton flip-flops, which will be given out to UC San Diego alumni and distributed at special events during the testing phases.

“The algae surfboard was the first obvious product to make, but when you really look at the numbers you realize that making a flip-flop or shoe sole like this is much more important,” said Mayfield. “Depending on how you do the chemistry, you can make hard foams or soft foams from algae oil. You can make algae-based, renewable surfboards, flip-flops, polyurethane athletic shoes, car seats or even tires for your car.”

And Mayfield is optimistic about the future. “Our plan is that in the next year, you’ll be able to go into the store and buy an Algenesis flip-flop that is sustainable, biodegradable and that was invented by students at UC San Diego,” he said.