U lab develops bacteria-aided plastic production method

The U’s Center for Sustainable Polymers works to produce cheaper, greener synthetics.

by Keaton Schmitt

Plastics made by “re-wired” bacteria may soon replace conventional methods of producing synthetics with help from a University of Minnesota lab.
The Center for Sustainable Polymers works to turn natural products, like corn husks and other waste, into molecules that can be used in synthetics. Along with other University programs, the center is part of a push to boost green technology in the field.
The lab wants to create stronger and more useful artificial materials­ — specifically polymers — that degrade better than ones created from oil, said Marc Hillmyer, chemistry professor and director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers.
One of the center’s goals is to make the new products and methods for cheaper than it currently costs, said Hillmyer.
“Once we [make our methods cheaper than oil-based polymers], once we build on that, that’ll really transform things because plastics are a kind of material where the low cost wins out,” he said. “If we can do that with a sustainable version, everybody wins.”
Previously, lab researchers found a way to turn crop waste into polymers that are used to manufacture spandex.
Now, CSP has expanded its research programs and is working to “rewire” bacteria to make molecules that are useful for the polymer industry.
The center’s research has led to several patents, Hillmyer said, and a company offshoot of the center started late last year to bring the research to the business world.
A grant from the Institute for Research on Energy and the Environment — which later became the University’s Institute on the Environment — gave the sustainable polymer center its initial funding, said Lewis Gilbert, chief operating officer at the Institute.
Alongside large scale efforts to innovate, the Institute also supports lower-level programs.
One such effort, the Acara Challenge, lets teams of students submit business or technology ideas to improve the world. The winners get money and a chance to join a fellowship focused on making their idea a reality, and an additional cash reward, said Megan Voorhees, a consultant for Acara.
The Acara challenge finals this year are on Thursday, with ideas centered on improving living standards worldwide.
In the next year, IonE plans to launch another competition for professionals and professors, with seed money awards for winners, said Lewis.
The center has been more successful than other IonE projects, he said. “[When investing], you have a very small number of huge successes; the size of the huge successes tends to swamp everything else. The Center for Sustainable Polymers is of that … kind.