University of Minnesota receives $20 million for sustainable plastics research

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Researchers at the University of Minnesota received a grant to continue researching methods to turn agricultural products, like corn and soybeans, into sustainable plastics. 

Professor Marc Hillmyer and his team of researchers are studying polymers or, the molecules that make up plastics, to find ways to use organic material to make biodegradable or more sustainably recyclable plastics. 

Currently, most plastics are made with fossil fuels and can take hundreds of years to degrade. Some of those plastics are also challenging to recycle because they are easily contaminated or are not as valuable after they have been used. 

“We want them to be easily recycled, or easily reprocessed or possibly biodegradable,” Professor Hillmyer said.

The goal of Professor Hillmyer’s team is to make plastics that are just as good, if not better than traditional plastics while also being better for the environment. 

“I think it would be a huge benefit in terms of the amount of waste we produce and the amount of trash we put into landfills,” PhD student and researcher Stephanie Liffland said. 

The team’s goal is to find ways to create different types of plastic that are used for different reasons. There are plastics that are more flexible, some that are more durable and some that are meant to last for a long time.

Liffland says it’s also important to find a way to make plastics that can compete with plastics currently on the market. She said the plastics they are developing need to be as durable, pliable and affordable as traditional plastics so manufacturers are more likely to use them in their products. 

“People were getting rid of their straws and grocery bags are changing, so we’re seeing it from consumers, but we want a push for manufacturers too,” Liffland said.

The research happening at the U of M is looking at plastic on a basic, molecular level. Researchers are not developing specific products. Instead, they’re looking at the foundation of how plastic is made and how it could be made differently to benefit our environment. Researchers say consumers shouldn’t expect these new plastics they’re researching in stores anytime soon. 

Two start-up companies have licensed products from this lab. One of those start-up companies works with a foam that was developed at the University of Minnesota. Through a chemical process, the material can be recycled into the exact same material it started as.

The $20 million grant comes from the National Science Foundation. Researchers at the University of Minnesota are teaming up with some researchers from Cornell.

To learn more about this research, you can click here.