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Researchers develop environmentally friendly and fashion forward flip-flops made from algae

[Aug. 24, 2020: Joseph Shavit]

Researchers at the University of California San Diego have developed flip flops made from algae-based, polyurethane materials to help fight plastic pollution around the world.

The team, which works at the California Center for Algae Biotechnology, used chemistry and biology to turn algae into renewable polymers that can be used to create a wide range of naturally biodegradable products.

“We begin by growing algae and we grow them in raceway ponds where we can grow them up to very high density,” said Mike Burkart, professor of chemistry and biochemistry at the public research university in San Diego, California. “At that point when they are fully grown, we take the water out of them … and basically we’re able to get the algae down to a very viscous paste.”

“Then what we do is extract all the lipids out of that algae and it’s those lipids that we’re making our materials out of,” he said.

After hundreds of attempts, the researchers successfully created a polyurethane foam that is 52% biocontent and 48% petroleum. Within five years, they hope to make a product that uses 100% renewable materials.

The laboratory initially made gasoline from algae before turning its attention to surfboards, and now the humble flip-flop. The researchers hope that flip-flops will draw attention to widespread plastic pollution in the world's water supply. As "the world's most popular shoe, plastic flip flops account for a significant portion of that pollution" Burkart said.

“Almost every major shoe manufacturer has come to talk to us about the possibility of using our materials in their products,” Burkart said.

To make the flip flops commercially available, the researchers launched Algenesis Materials, a biotechnology company that will collaborate with shoe manufacturers to sell the flip flops and other biodegradable products made from algae.

The flip flops will be available in January 2021 in a range of fashionable colors and designs.


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Want to learn more?

Could biodegradable plastics made from natural substances such as algae replace fossil-fuel polymers? There are a number of designers already experimenting with bioplastics made from everything from corn starch to beetle shells. This article published by DeZeen displays 10 of the most innovative examples.

You can also earn more about the great work being done at the California Center for Algae Biotechnology at the University of California San Diego by clicking here.



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