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Venture Into Biobased Chemistry Boosts MMI’s R&D Program

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MIDLAND — Thanks to a pair of new projects, Michigan Molecular Institute’s foray into biobased chemistry is starting to gain traction.

MMI announced Thursday it has secured approximately $130,000 in funding from a collaboration with Micromidas Inc. to research biopolymers and renewable polymer building blocks. In addition, thanks to a $25,000 grant, MMI is providing proof-of-concept expertise to the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan’s renewable propylene glycol derivatives research.

Patrick B. Smith, a research scientist, is leading MMI’s charge in the area of biobased materials. He provided details for each project.

“Micromidas is a really interesting startup company based in West Sacramento,” Smith said. “They take low-value organic waste and convert it into higher value bioplastics and chemical building blocks. Currently, they’re focused on municipal waste, where they ferment that sludge and convert it into plastics that feed into significant commercial plastics streams.

“Obviously, having a renewable source like municipal waste is very valuable to the end users,” he added. “They’re working with us because their chemical engineers and biologists are really good at what they do, but they don’t have our polymer background. They really brought us on board to help them understand the polymer science and the rheology, to figure out what kinds of properties they need in these polymers to make them work well in commercial applications.”

Smith said Micromidas is in the process of building a pilot plant to demonstrate the commercial viability of its technology, adding that MMI’s work on the project, which began Sept. 1, is already showing positive early returns. He expects that MMI’s research will prove valuable enough to Micromidas to continue well beyond this initial phase.

Another project occupying the MMI biobased chemistry team is the work for the CMPM.

“The research for the CMPM also involves chemical engineers at Michigan State University, with whom we’re collaborating on this project,” Smith said. “We’re doing a feasibility study to validate the chemistry and separation process for producing a better renewable form of propylene glycol derivatives.”

Historically, propylene glycol, or PG, was derived from petroleum-based sources. The work Smith is conducting with MSU aims to produce derivatives from the same beneficial PG material from corn starch; that’s where the funding from the CMPM comes in.

“PG is used in many commercial products, like lotions and detergents,” Smith said. “The fact that it could be renewable-sourced offers big advantages to people in the consumer products market, particularly if we can do it in a cost-competitive fashion, which we believe we can.”

The project is funded by the CMPM for six months, but Smith anticipates extended research will follow. Both projects underline MMI’s commitment to biobased materials research, he said.

“In the area of renewables chemistry, researchers are starting to make that transition from theories and ideas to actual implementation of practical, cost-effective applications,” he said. “There are many, many areas where MMI’s polymer expertise can aid – and enhance – that transition. We’re really just getting started.”

Michigan Molecular Institute, founded in Midland in 1971, is a non-profit organization dedicated to polymer research and education. MMI offers world-class research and development across many areas, including photonics, membranes, specialty coatings, delivery systems and sensors. Its core capabilities include polymer synthesis and design; polymer characterization; polymer science; materials science; polymer formulation and processing; heterogeneous catalysis; silicone chemistry; and biobased materials. For more information, visit www.mmi.org.

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