Sustainable Polymers: Greener Plastics, Cleaner Water

New kinds of polymers can create sustainable plastics and purify water

Safe and durable, plastics have long pervaded our everyday lives and facilitated convenience. However, as resources are depleted and heaps of trash accumulate, plastics are becoming more expensive and unsustainable. What if we made plastics greener -- producing them from plants instead of oil? Instead of harmful chemicals, what if we used natural compounds? What if plastics could be composted, recycled, and used for energy? Marc Hillmyer, Presidential McKnight Endowed Chair at the University of Minnesota, is developing new polymeric materials that can make sustainable, environmentally friendly plastics. It turns out, similar kinds of advanced polymers can also help purify water through advanced membrane technology. This allows Professor Hillmyer to leverage his expertise to tackle two of the greatest environmental challenges facing society today.

The big challenge that comes with creating polymers is to reconcile its chemistry implications with its economical applications. To reduce environmental harms and increase economic benefits, Professor Hillmyer hopes to derive polymers from waste biomass, and eventually be able to produce compostable plastics and purify industrial waste into drinkable water. With a strong emphasis on the design, synthesis, and characterization of new macromolecular materials and on the development of sustainable polymers from renewable resources, the Hillmyer Research Group has also established several formal cooperative relationships with other research groups at the University of Minnesota. This extensive infrastructure and collaborative nature of the faculty enables a dynamic research environment, and to this advantage Professor Hillmyer hopes to accelerate breakthroughs in the varied applications of polymer technology.

Current research projects include:

  • The New Elastic, Tough, Tunable, Degradable and Renewable Plastics: There has been a recent breakthrough for the generation of new elastic, tough, and tunable plastics that come from sugar. Hillmyer and Colleagues found that, when fed with sugar, certain microorganisms began to generate molecules that the group could then polymerize and convert into plastic molecules. This is an exciting milestone that integrates microbial engineering controlled polymerization with advanced materials properties, and further advancements in this area can help us out-compete petroleum-based materials at similar cost.
  • New Membranes with High Porosity and Small Pore Size: Dr. Hillmyer and his group are creating polymer membranes with a very high fraction of pore space with narrow size distributions at the nanometer scale to separate viruses from water. Collaborating within the field of nanotechnology, the Hillmyer Research Group hopes to generate nanostructured membranes with high selectivity and high flux that even enable the conversion of, salt water into potable water.


Dr. Marc A. Hillmyer received his B.S. in Chemistry from the University of Florida in 1989 and his Ph.D. in Chemistry from the California Institute of Technology in 1994. After completing a postdoctoral research position in the University of Minnesota’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Materials Science, he joined the Chemistry faculty at Minnesota in 1997. He is currently a Presidential McKnight Endowed Chair of chemistry and leads a research group focused on the synthesis and self-assembly of multifunctional polymers. In addition to his teaching and research responsibilities, Marc also serves as an Associate Editor for the ACS journal Macromolecules and is the director of the National Science Foundation funded Center for Sustainable Polymers at the University of Minnesota.

Dr. Hillmyer loves working on hard problems that have both scientific and technological relevance. He is also motivated by sustainability, and working on economical solutions to pressing problems regarding environmental stewardship. Dr. Hillmyer truly loves curiosity driven research and following his instincts to uncover new solutions to challenging problems. That new discovery that is waiting around the corner drives Dr. Hillmyer and focuses his attention on uncovering and understanding the unknown.

Outside of his research, he is an aspiring jazz musician guitarist who tries to practice during what little free time he has outside of spending time in his office and with his family.

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McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair, 2015

The McKnight Presidential Endowed Chair is among the highest honors for faculty at the University. Recipients are recommended by their college dean and chosen at the discretion of the president based, in part, on their academic and research accomplishments and their contributions to advancing the University among its peers.

Carl S. Marvel Creative Polymer Chemistry Award (POLY division of the American Chemical Society), 2011

To recognize and encourage accomplishments and/or innovation of unusual merit in the field of basic or applied polymer science by younger scientists.

Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), 2009

Election as a Fellow of AAAS is an honor bestowed upon members by their peers. Fellows are recognized for meritorious efforts to advance science or its applications.

Packard Fellowship for Science and Engineering, 2000–2005

The Packard Fellowships for Science and Engineering provides the nation’s most promising early-career scientists and engineers with flexible funding and the freedom to take risks and explore new frontiers in their fields of study. Packard Fellows must be faculty members who are eligible to serve as principal investigators engaged in research in physics, chemistry, mathematics, biology, astronomy, computer science, earth science, ocean science, and all branches of engineering. Packard Fellows are encouraged to think big and look at complex issues with a fresh perspective. The Foundation encourages them to use their funds in whatever ways would best advance their research.

Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Award, 2000–2005

The Camille Dreyfus Teacher-Scholar Awards Program supports the research and teaching careers of talented young faculty in the chemical sciences. Based on institutional nominations, the program provides discretionary funding to faculty at an early stage in their careers. Criteria for selection include an independent body of scholarship attained within the first five years of their appointment as independent researchers, and a demonstrated commitment to education, signaling the promise of continuing outstanding contributions to both research and teaching.


U.S. Patent No. 8,203,007: "Bifunctional lactide monomer derivative and polymers and materials prepared using the same."

Jing, F.; Hillmyer, M.A., June 19, 2012.

U.S. Patent No. 7,939,603: "Polylactide composites and methods of producing the same."

Connell, E.J.; Hillmyer, M.A.; Robertson, M.L., May 10, 2011.

U.S. Patent No. 7,714,097: "Polymer synthesis from macrocycles."

Zhang, D.; Tolman, W.B.; Hillmyer, M.A., May 11, 2010.

U.S. Patent No. 6,953,868: "Oxyfunctionalization of polyolefins."

Boaen, N.K.; Hillmyer, M.A.; Hahn, S.F., October 11, 2005.

U.S. Patent No. 5,880,231: "Synthesis of telechelic polymers using ruthenium and osmium carbene complexes."

Grubbs, R.H.; Nguyen, S.T.; Hillmyer, M.A., March 9, 1999