University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota

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Research + Education + Public Policy = Change

Economic development, the environment, public policy, education, and scientific discovery form the foundation of the Center for Sustainable Polymers' mission.

The Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP) is a unique integration of science, technology, and public policy initiatives aimed at reducing the use of finite fossil fuel reserves for the creation of polymers (plastics).

In addition to advancing cutting-edge polymer research at the University of Minnesota, the center's mission encompasses forming partnerships with industries, teaching students about sustainable materials, and educating and engaging the public.

Launched in May 2009, seed funds for the Center for Sustainable Polymers were provided by the University's Initiative for Renewable Energy & the Environment (IREE) large grant program, which helps launch early-stage, high-potential projects in emerging fields of renewable energy and the environment. Generous industry funding and other support comes from various company affiliates that include Cargill's NatureWorks, LLC, which has been working since 1997 to develop competitive, low-carbon footprint, polymer products made from renewable resources.


Professor Marc Hillmyer is director of the CSP. He is a professor in the College of Science and Engineering's (CSE) Department of Chemistry, and is a leader in the design, synthesis, and property optimization of polymeric materials.

His CSP colleagues target a range of research and public policy efforts at the university in the area of sustainable polymers science and technology. Principal investigators include Professors Tom Hoye and Bill Tolman from the Department of Chemistry; Professors Frank Bates and Chris Macosko from the CSE's Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science; Steve Kelley, director of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs' Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy; and Professor Steve Severtson from the College of Food, Agricultural and National Resource Sciences' Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering.

Focus on renewable resources

CSP's research is focused on the creation of synthetic polymers from renewable and sustainable resources such as soybeans, corn, sugar beets, and pine trees. These new polymers ideally will be commercially viable, produced in an energy-efficient manner, and environmentally friendly, including being non-toxic and compostable. The new polymeric materials also must be competitive with petroleum-derived products, particularly in the areas of strength, elasticity, and heat resistance.

Critical need

"There is a critical need to reduce our reliance on synthetic chemicals and materials made from crude oil-a non-renewable resource," said Hillmyer.

"Our challenge is to develop alternatives from sustainable, renewable resources, meeting our technological needs while preserving Earth's resources," said Hillmyer. "Sustainable polymers-green materials-can be durable, can be degradable, can be used in applications from adhesives to packaging and building materials, and can be produced efficiently and economically with low environmental impact."

Outreach/education takes CSP to the fair

As part of its outreach and education efforts, the Center for Sustainable Polymers worked with the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency to develop an Eco Experience exhibit for last year's state fair. The exhibit was an opportunity for more than 300,000 visitors to learn about sustainable polymers, to see products made from those polymers, to ask questions, and to learn about the center.

People could play with molecular models, touch and look at the range of plastic products made from renewable resources such as clothing and fibers, see the life cycle of polymer products made from corn that were composted back into soil again, and learn about polymer research. The display was also intentionally designed to engage young people, illustrating that chemistry is a career with scientists working on relevant solutions to today's issues.

Bill Bushey, a graduate student, Paul Andre from the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency, and Professor Marc Hillmyer, director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers, created the exhibit. Bushey is a second-year Master of Science in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy candidate and a research assistant for the Center for Science, Technology, and Public Policy at the Humphrey Institute and the Center for Sustainable Polymers.

"By telling people about the applications for sustainable polymers and by making connections with companies, we can tell some good stories to our policy makers, and work to capitalize on resources that can sustain this type of research," said Steve Kelley, director of the Humphrey Institute of Public Affairs' Center for Science, Technology and Public Policy, which is a partner in the CSP.

Developing products from renewable resources is an economic development issue as well. Kelley is convinced that new businesses will be created as new uses for crops and other new sources of renewable materials are developed, and the range of applications available is expanded. Those new businesses will have the value-added benefit of also being environmental friendly.

As a public policy student, Bushey said that he realized that scientific research, itself, is not enough. "Some of our other systems have to catch up with the research and technology," he said. "We need to think about needed changes to some of our social institutions and infrastructures. For example, it is great that we are developing packaging that is compostable. But how is it compostable? Where is it compostable? How do we educate and engage the public about what to do and how to do it?"

Bushey said that answering these questions is important and one of the reasons why multi-disciplinary, integrated partnerships such as those forged by the Center for Sustainable Polymers are so important. "We can make science better by integrating different perspectives and disciplines," he said.