$20M grant to support developing eco-friendly plastics

A five-year, $20 million National Science Foundation grant will allow chemists from Cornell and other institutions to study new ways to make plastics more sustainable.

The award establishes one of eight NSF Centers for Chemical Innovation, and is based at the University of Minnesota. Grant co-investigators include Cornell’s Geoffrey Coates, professor of chemistry and chemical biology in the College of Arts and Sciences and a Tisch University Professor; William Dichtel, associate professor in the same department; and Anne LaPointe, senior research associate in chemistry. Marc Hillmyer of the University of Minnesota is director of the Center for Sustainable Polymers (CSP) and the project’s lead; University of California, Berkeley, scientists are also involved.

Work in the CSP will be aimed at technologically competitive, cost-effective, environmentally sustainable materials made from polymers. Research is already underway to convert abundant, sustainable, plant-derived biomass into plastics by combining new methods in synthetic chemistry with novel processing techniques. The goal is to develop next-generation plastics that are nontoxic, biodegradable and recyclable, and attractive to consumers in cost and performance.

At Cornell, of particular importance to the center’s mission will be the polymer science laboratory led by Coates, who studies how efficient catalytic chemistry can convert biomass molecules into polymer precursors that have been traditionally prepared from petroleum. Coates is also studying whether plastics could be created from carbon dioxide. Coates’ polymer research formed the basis for his startup company, Novomer.

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

More than three dozen graduate students and postdoctoral researchers will be involved in research projects at the center, as well as education and outreach activities. Each senior investigator will also mentor undergraduates during summer research programs.

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