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CSP receives $20 million grant to pioneer next generation plastics

The University of Minnesota’s (UMN) Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP) was awarded a Phase II Center for Chemical Innovation (CCI) grant from the National Science Foundation, totaling $20 million over five years. This new award will result in significant expansion and enhancement of CSP activities centered on the mission of transforming how plastics are made and unmade through innovative research, engaging education, and diverse partnerships that together foster environmental stewardship.

Under the direction of Marc Hillmyer, a Distinguished McKnight University Professor in the UMN’s Department of Chemistry, the multi-disciplinary and collaborative CSP was initiated in 2009 with start-up funding from the university. In 2011, the CSP was awarded a Phase I CCI grant, totaling $1.5 million over three years. The Phase II award makes the Center for Sustainable Polymers the newest of eight Centers for Chemical Innovation (CCI) in the United States.

“The Center for Sustainable Polymers will play a key role in establishing the basic knowledge needed to reduce the nation’s reliance on finite feedstocks by developing environmentally friendly, cost-effective plastics from natural, sustainable and renewable materials,” said Tanja Pietrass, acting division director of the National Science Foundation Division of Chemistry. “This work will contribute to the growing U.S. bio-based polymer market, projected to value $7 billion by 2018,” she said.

Diverse group of scientists

The CSP draws together a remarkable group of scientists that include researchers at the University of Minnesota, Cornell University, and the University of California, Berkeley, along with more than 30 companies from across the nation. Collectively, this team is shaping the CSP’s vision: To provide society with technologically competitive, cost-effective and environmentally sustainable materials made from polymers. The CSP is taking a comprehensive approach in tackling this challenging goal.  Abundant and sustainable plant-derived biomass will be converted into plastics by combining new methods in synthetic green chemistry with innovative processing techniques leading to polymeric materials that can be fashioned into innumerable items of commerce. These products will be non-toxic in use, endowed with the ability to be degraded, recycled or incinerated by environmentally sound methods, and attractive to consumers from both a cost and performance standpoint.

The center integrates experts in polymer, organic, biosynthetic, inorganic, computational, and materials chemistry. CSP researchers from the UMN College of Science & Engineering’s departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering & Materials Science include Professors Frank Bates, Christopher Cramer, Hillmyer, Thomas Hoye, Chris Macosko, Theresa Reineke, William Tolman, Jane Wissinger and Kechun Zhang. Research at Cornell University is being led by Professors Geoff Coates and Will Dichtel, and Dr. Anne LaPointe. At the University of California, Berkeley, research collaborators are Professors Michelle Chang, John Hartwig and Dean Toste. Professor Mark Matsen from the University of Waterloo in Toronto, Canada adds an important international research collaboration.

“The CSP has assembled a unique blend of extraordinary and complementary talent from three leading institutions with a shared passion for transforming the impact of polymeric materials on society,” said UMN Regents Professor Frank Bates.

Solving complex scientific puzzles

That diversity of expertise is essential for addressing the complex scientific puzzle presented by new bio-based plastics that will compete with or outperform those made from fossil resources. For example, CSP researchers at the University of Minnesota recently combined expertise in biosynthesis, chemical engineering, metabolic pathway engineering, materials science, and polymer chemistry to build biobased block copolymers, an emerging class of high-performance materials, from purely sugar-derived building blocks. This breakthrough innovation was made possible by the unique CSP model, which embraces new approaches to feedstock generation, controlled polymerization and hybrid structures, reinforced by CSP company technical and market know how. This patented technology is being marketed to industries that can translate this discovery into innovative products. This invention illustrates how multifaceted CSP research leads to innovation while simultaneously generating new knowledge.

“Phase II funding enables CSP researchers to address the science challenges associated with sustainability in a comprehensive manner, ultimately resulting in more innovative discoveries and advances,” Hillmyer said. As examples, Tolman and Coates are looking at how efficient catalytic chemistry can be used to convert biomass molecules into polymer precursors that have been traditionally prepared from petroleum. Coates also is researching the creation of plastics from carbon dioxide (CO2), an abundant but recalcitrant molecule. A leader in this field, his innovations led to the establishment of the successful start-up company, Novomer.

"This NSF Center for Chemical Innovation is unique in that it not only focuses on polymer synthesis and structure, but also the development of new monomers from renewable feedstocks, said Coates. “We will particularly benefit by the theoretical expertise in the center that will help guide reaction development, as well as researchers with expertise in the materials processing and properties."

In another area, Reineke is interested in the human health aspects of plastics, and plans to design plastics that are non-toxic in their use, are created in environmentally-friendly ways, and don’t create toxic byproducts when recycled, composted or incinerated.

Education and outreach important to mission

The basic research mission of the Center for Sustainable Polymers offers the researchers and center staff an ideal platform for enhancing and expanding innovative education and outreach programs. For example, the framework of the CSP allows researchers to participate and lead outreach activities that help communicate the importance of CSP’s research. More than three dozen graduate students and post-doctoral researchers will be involved in all aspects of the CSP research, education and outreach activities. In addition, each senior investigator also will have the opportunity to mentor an undergraduate student in a 10-week summer research program that helps teach excited younger researchers about opportunities in science and engineering.

“This collaborative effort provides students and post doctorates with unique opportunities to develop professionally while contributing to one of the technologically and commercially most important areas in the field of chemistry,” said Bates.

As one of the CSP senior investigators, Wissinger brings extensive experience working on diverse aspects of green chemistry. In addition to coursework development and integration of new “green” laboratory practices, she has developed experiments for undergraduate students focused on creating new polymers from biobased feedstocks. Her work will continue to flourish as she shares this expertise with professors across the country.

“The pool of students we recruit from in the CSP are very interested in green chemistry,” said Hillmyer. “They want to be involved in programs, projects and research that are focused on changing how we do chemistry and improving our environment.”

“Outreach to and education of young people is a top priority for the center,” said Laura Seifert, CSP managing director. “It is imperative to engage students from an early age in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields,” she said. The center is a major supporter of the university’s Energy and U program, which brings more than 10,000 elementary-aged students to the University of Minnesota campus every year to teach them about energy and show them that science is fun and something that they, too, can do. A focus for Energy and U is engaging students from underrepresented groups in the sciences.

“It’s important to broaden the diversity of the people involved in research, and to do that we need more young people in STEM fields,” said Hillmyer. “We need their diversity of thought, backgrounds and cultural experiences,” he said.

The CSP will partner with Twin Cities Public Television’s SciGirls and 4-H in Minnesota, New York and California to develop physical science curriculum for youth in kindergarten through 8th grade, and will lead an exhibit in the EcoExperience building at the Minnesota State Fair.

Building partnerships with businesses & industries

Since its beginning, Center for Sustainable Polymers researchers have built important partnerships with businesses and industries. To date 32 companies have pledged their support, and the Center will continue to build its base of industrial partners who are interested in moving away from non-renewable polymers in their products. Importantly, these companies will help the CSP translate the research into innovative technologies that will lead to changes in the marketplace.

“If we are going to have an impact on changing people’s perceptions, practices and spending habits when it comes to plastics, we have to engage directly with the public, policy makers and industry,” said Seifert.

Climate for success

For Hillmyer, personally, his work with the Center for Sustainable Polymers has engaged him in research endeavors that are simultaneously interesting, challenging and impactful. He is excited about the future possibilities for creating new advanced plastics, and helping teach, mentor and excite young people who want to make a difference in the world. And he is grateful to a university that fosters multi-disciplinary, collaborative efforts such as the Center for Sustainable Polymers.

“The university has created a culture and a climate, and provided resources that support and facilitate departments working and growing together,” he said. “The ease of doing business with other departments at the university has been a tremendous asset to the CSP,” he said. The fostering of research collaborations such as the CSP also positions the university to be highly competitive both nationally and internationally.”

“Some of the very best science is done when researchers with diverse backgrounds and perspectives work together to tackle the most challenging problems, “ said Tolman. “With the granting of Phase II support by the NSF and the strong partnerships among faculty and students in the Departments of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering and Materials Science at the UMN, our collaborators at UC Berkeley and Cornell, and the large group of industrial affiliates, the CSP is extraordinarily well-positioned to make innovative discoveries at the forefront of chemistry.”

Read the College of Science & Engineering official news release.

For additional information, go to the CSP website. Like it on Facebook. Follow it on Twitter.

This work was supported by the National Science Foundation under the Center for Sustainable Polymers CHE-1413862.