MMI announces participation in biobased chemistry projects

By Erin Voegele | December 29, 2011

In late December, Michigan Molecular Institute announced that it will participate in two new biobased chemistry projects, one focused on biopolymers and the other on propylene glycol. MMI, which recently began its expansion into the biobased segment, is a nonprofit organization dedicated to polymer research and education.

To support the first project, MMI said it has secured approximately $130,000 in funding from a collaboration with Micromidas Inc. to research biopolymers and renewable polymer building blocks. According to information released by MMI, Micromidas is developing a process to convert organic waste into 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 plastic streams,” said Patrick Smith, a research scientist who leads MMI’s biobased materials work.

While Micromidas’ chemical engineers and biologists are very good at what they do, Smith noted that the company doesn’t have as strong a background in polymers as MMI. “They really brought us on board to help them understand the polymer science and rheology, to figure out what kinds of properties they need in these polymers to make them work well in commercial applications,” he said.

According to Smith, Micromidas is in the process of building a pilot facility to prove out its technology and demonstrate the commercial viability of its process. He also said that MMI’s work on the project is already showing positive early returns and that his organization expects to continue collaborating with Micromidas as it continues its work.

Regarding the second project, a $25,000 grant is allowing MMI to provide proof-of-concept expertise to the Corn Marketing Program of Michigan’s renewable propylene glycol derivatives research. “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.”

The work MMI is completing with MSU aims to produce these derivatives from corn starch. According to Smith, the project is currently funded by the CMPM for six months, but is likely to be extended.