Sunday, May 1, 2022

UCSD Professors Create Biodegradable Shoe – The UCSD Guardian Online

Three professors at UC San Diego, Stephen Mayfield, Michael Burkart, and Robert Pomeroy, have created the world’s first shoe using completely-biodegradable materials. The team launched their shoe products on Blueview Footwear after a six-year project of research and experimentation specific date.

The company advertises the shoes as the world’s first biodegradable shoe, made completely from plant-based oils that can be composted over time instead of being sent to landfills. The shoe aims to reduce carbon emissions and combat climate change. 

The shoe is 65 percent renewable, and its materials can be reused, but is also completely biodegradable and can be fully composted within six months. With a price of $135 for the shoe, the website also offers free shipping and 30-day returns.

The company website states that the shoe was created as a result of large amounts of toxic waste and plastics dumped into the ocean. The process to make such a shoe first began over six years ago when Mayfield began his own project of turning algae into fuel, in order to substitute fossil fuels for a plant-based fuel, as stated on the UCSD news center website

Mayfield is a professor from the biology department, specializing in the synthesis of green algae and its uses as a fuel. Once Mayfield and his team, which consisted of Burkart and Pomeroy, were able to create a plant-based fuel, they focused their attention on creating a plant-based shoe that was completely compostable. They first created flip flops using the foam they had developed from green algae.

“We started making flip flops with the algae-based material,” Burkart said. “It was important that our products were not only renewable, but also biodegradable because we saw a huge problem with plastic waste in the ocean … and we did not want to contribute to the problem.” 

After achieving success with the flip flops, Burkart stated that the team then went on to start a company to reach a larger scale, creating a more widely-usable biodegradable, closed-toe shoe consisting of the same foam, with a shoe top made from hemp and cellulose. 

“They’re very durable, they will wear just like any shoe but once you’re done with them, put them in a compost and they’ll completely biodegrade in six months,” Burkart said. 

Burkart, a professor from the chemistry department who leads his own lab in a project of discovering and bio synthesizing natural products, acted as Chief Scientist for the project. He played an important role in the creation of the shoe itself as well as the development of the company. 

“These are all technologies that we developed here in our labs at UCSD,” Burkart said. ”In the company, I lead the development of the materials and the formulation [as well as] the scale up … how we were able to go from a few grams in the lab to a [much larger] scale in a chemical manufacturing facility.” 

Another key individual in the creation of the product is Pomeroy, from the biochemistry department. After joining the department in 2007, he collaborated with students in the manufacturing of biofuels and plant-based polyurethanes. After being involved with initial formulations, Pomeroy’s current role in the project is applying analytical chemistry to assure the quality of the product being produced in the lab.

“My role mentoring the undergrad and masters students that work with me in the lab is to focus on the quality control of the starting materials and then monitoring the chemical fate of our products as they undergo chemical and biological degradation,” Pomeroy said.

Pomeroy’s aspirations for the creation of the shoe revolve around showcasing to the world that it is possible to create products that are better for the planet that still maintain the quality desired today. 

While there are many challenges that arise with the creation of the shoe, a challenge that Pomeroy faced was within the selling aspect of the shoe, in a term labeled “greenwashing” where the authenticity of the product has to be proven.

“[A challenge with the shoe was] the bad messaging associated with an advertising strategy known as ‘greenwashing,” Pomeroy said. “So while we have made a great product, we now must communicate to everyone the genuine value of our product compared to others that claim to be green.” 

Many of the employees in the company are former students, and Burkart stated that since research is always happening and materials are constantly being developed, there are many opportunities in his lab as well as Mayfield’s and Pomeroy’s labs for students to get involved.  

Those interested in learning more about Blueview can visit here. Students may also contact the lead professors involved to discuss the project in further detail.

Photo courtesy of UCSD San Diego News Center.

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