You wouldn’t think that something as humble as a flip-flop could actually change the planet, but numbers don’t lie—each year, three billion petroleum-based flip-flops are produced worldwide, eventually ending up as nonbiodegradable trash in landfills, rivers and oceans around the globe.
That’s why professors Steve Mayfield and Skip Pomeroy, the team that created the world’s first algae surfboard, have turned their photosynthetic phenomenon to the world of footwear.
“A flip-flop is the number one shoe in the world,” says Mayfield, “the shoes of a fisherman and a farmer. This is the number one shoe in India, China and Africa, and in fact, one of the largest pollutants in the ocean is polyurethane from flip-flops and other shoes. So when you really look at the numbers, you realize that making a flip-flop or shoe sole like this is much more important.”
After perfecting the process of turning algae oil into a rigid foam surfboard, the team set sights on achieving a flexible foam that could become a shoe sole. Working with students in their York Hall lab, they adapted the chemistry to produce molded foam of varied degrees of rigidity—softer for the footpad and harder for the walking surface.
The result is Triton Soles, a flexible yet durable flip-flop adorned with a trident logo and a simple strap. It’s fairly basic as flip-flops go, yet the team’s ambition for the product, as well as its educational opportunities, is vast.
Mayfield, Pomeroy and fellow professor Michael Burkart plan to scale their algae innovations through a startup company, Algenesis Materials, which employs some of their lab students and provides them with the opportunity to experience what Pomeroy calls “project-based learning.”
“Teaching chemistry in the classroom is sometimes like trying to teach soccer at the chalkboard,” Pomeroy explains. “In the laboratory and in industry, students are far more engaged when they’re actually trying to solve a problem. Most people will tell you that our students are really, really bright, but they don’t always have practical experience. This is a way to provide them with that.”
As the first product for Algenesis, Triton Soles will allow faculty and students to fine tune the chemistry and manufacturing process to produce not only shoe soles, but eventually larger items like car seats, tires and many other products traditionally made from petroleum.
“Petroleum comes from algae that lived in the ancient oceans hundreds of millions of years ago,” says Mayfield. “A lot of people don’t know that. But what that means is anything we can make from petroleum, we can ultimately make from algae.”
For now, Triton Soles are only available in limited supply. The company aims to produce a larger run of a few thousand test pairs, and lucky for Tritons, they have singled out UC San Diego alumni for first dibs.
“It’s going to be a little while before you can buy one of these flip-flops in the store, but not too long,” says Mayfield. “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 invented by students at UC San Diego.”