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  • Professor Marc Hillmyer working with Stephanie Liffland in the lab.
    08/13/19

    University of Minnesota receives $20M grant for sustainable plastics research

Funding also includes education and outreach to inspire the next generation

The University of Minnesota announced today that it has been awarded a $20 million grant renewal from the National Science Foundation (NSF) for research in the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers focused on discoveries of the next generation of environment-friendly plastics. The funding also includes an educational component to build awareness surrounding the impacts of plastics on our environment.

The NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers is one of only nine Phase II Centers for Chemical Innovation ever funded by the NSF. The Centers for Chemical Innovation awards are the largest single awards made by NSF’s Division of Chemistry.

The NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers, based at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities Campus, conducts basic research on polymers—the molecules that make up plastics. The center is unique in that it draws together top researchers from across the country to focus on how to improve these polymer compunds. University of Minnesota academic partners include Cornell University; Northwestern University; University of California, Berkeley; University of Chicago; Washington University in St. Louis; and University of South Dakota. Companies from across the nation also partner with the academic researchers to provide industry advice.

portrait of Professor Marc Hillmyer, taken in July 2019
NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers Director Marc Hillmyer

Tackling a daunting challenge

“Traditional plastics are amazing materials that improve our everyday lives in a variety of ways and probably aren’t going away any time soon,” said Marc Hillmyer, the director of the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers and a McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Chemistry. “The problem, though, is that the very thing that makes these materials so useful—their low-cost, durability, and strength—present challenges with respect to their environmental impact and finding renewable and degradable alternatives.”

Their strength and durability mean that plastics do not break down over a reasonable time frame, and when they are not disposed of properly or when recycling pathways are not available, they can collect in the environment and cause ecological problems. Moreover, their low cost makes them ubiquitous in our society for innumerable applications, and it is difficult to find cost-effective replacement materials for consumers.

These problems can be daunting. According to the University of Georgia, about 18 billion pounds of plastic waste flows into the oceans every year from coastal regions, the equivalent of five grocery bags of plastic trash sitting on every foot of coastline around the world. The University of California, Santa Barbara, estimates that about 40 percent of plastic produced is packaging used just once and then discarded. This has led to bans on plastic bags, straws, and other disposables across the world.

The NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers is taking a comprehensive approach to tackle this challenging goal. Abundant and sustainable plant-derived biomass is being converted into plastics by combining new methods in synthetic green chemistry with innovative processing techniques leading to materials for many different products that can be used in everything from food and beverage packaging to automotive products.

These new plastics are designed to be high-performing, non-toxic, biodegradable, recycled, reprocessed or incinerated in environmentally sound ways. From these basic research efforts, the center researchers are establishing the foundation from which new, low-cost, and competitive replacement technologies can be built.

One success story of the Center for Sustainable Polymers is how researchers used microbial engineering to develop an inexpensive pathway to sustainably make commercially viable flexible foams usable in everyday items like chair seats and pillows. They als
One success story of the Center for Sustainable Polymers is how researchers used microbial engineering to develop an inexpensive pathway to sustainably make commercially viable flexible foams usable in everyday items like chair seats and pillows. They also demonstrated that the foam could be chemically recycled back to its starting material. Photo of Derek Batiste by John Beumer, University of Minnesota.

Highlighting research successes

The NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers, originally established at the University of Minnesota in 2009 through the Initiative for Renewable Energy and the Environment, has already enjoyed numerous successes.

Researchers at the University of Minnesota and Cornell collaborated to develop a way to take the two most common plastics, isotactic polypropylene and polyethylene, and make them compatible. These two materials, which currently have to be separated in the recycling stream, can now be combined by employing new polymers developed in the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers. This could have a significant impact on the recycling industry by providing new avenues for recycled materials.

Center researchers used microbial engineering to develop an inexpensive pathway to sustainably make commercially viable flexible foams usable in everyday items like chair seats and pillows. Following this discovery, a graduate student-led project demonstrated that the foam could be chemically recycled back to its starting material.

A team of CSP researchers has invented a new technology to produce the key ingredient used in automobile tires, isoprene, from renewable feedstocks in a process that could shift the tire production industry toward using renewable resources found right in our backyards.

The center has submitted 27 patent applications and published more than 200 peer-reviewed research articles about their discoveries.

There have been two start-up companies (Valerian Materials and CycloPure) stemming from the center’s efforts.

“We’ve seen many successes already, but the potential is endless,” Hillmyer said. “Technology is changing quickly, and we need to find ways to push the limits of science to develop better materials that meet our needs and won’t damage our environment.”

Developing education and outreach programs

To help raise awareness of the environmental issues surrounding plastics and inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers, the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers has had an extensive partnership with 4-H over the last five years to develop physical science education modules for youth in 4-H. The module development has included the work of extension educators at the University of Minnesota, Cornell, and University of California, Davis.

Physical science modules for grades K-2 were released in 2017 and have been downloaded by more than 130 instructors for use with an estimated 13,000 youth in 29 states and three countries. Modules for grades 3-5 and 6-8 are in the final stages of revision and will be released in the coming months. With this new funding, the center will work on developing 4-H teen-teacher modules for grades 9-12 to help older youth implement the modules within their own communities.

The NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers also offers an annual summer undergraduate research program and also has a major presence in the EcoExperience Building throughout all 12 days of the Minnesota State Fair.

“Developing sustainable chemistry pathways is one of the most pressing needs in modern science,” said Carol Bessel, the acting director for the Division of Chemistry at NSF. “NSF Centers like the Center for Sustainable Polymers bring scientists together to tackle difficult questions and encourage transformative partnerships for public education. NSF is proud to continue to support the center’s impactful work, including its development of renewable, plant based-materials, routes for bio-degradation and facile recycling, as well as its outreach to thousands of people through 4-H and at the Minnesota State Fair.” 

Hillmyer agrees that the NSF Center for Sustainable Polymers can have a significant impact on future generations.

“Our goal is to widen participation on this issue and build the pipeline for researchers from varying backgrounds to help us solve the problem with traditional plastics,” Hillmyer said. “Future generations are counting on us, and I am proud to lead such an incredible team of researchers with a common vision for a more sustainable society.”

Contact

Rhonda Zurn, College of Science and Engineering, rzurn@umn.edu, 612-626-7959
Lacey Nygard, University News Service, ljnygard@umn.edu, 612-625-0552
https://z.umn.edu/cspgrant19