A career dedicated to finding greener plastic
A white plastic string holds Stephen Miller’s doctorate diploma up on the wall of his office.
His bookshelves are lined with water bottles, yogurt cups and Styrofoam cups. Some are biodegradable, most are not, but all are made of polymers, the focus of Miller’s research at the University of Florida.
“People say that we now live in the polymer age,” said Miller, associate professor of chemistry. “Right now we are enjoying the benefits of research in the realm of polymer chemistry, which supplies an amazing number of materials to us.”
Polymers are made from small molecules that have been linked together to make long, chain-like molecules, which compose materials such as plastic. Most of the polymers currently in use are petroleum-based and do not degrade. Miller’s research is geared toward making plant-based polymers that are programmed to degrade back into small molecules.
“Sugar is the new oil,” he said. “About a trillion plastic bags are made every year, and most do not degrade. Our ultimate goal is to replace petroleum-based plastics with sustainable plastics and find industrial applications for them.”
Originally from Indiana, Miller was inspired by a high school chemistry teacher to study science. His interest in polymers began at Stanford University as an undergraduate student spending his summers in a chemistry lab. He went on to earn his doctorate in chemistry from the California Institute of Technology and continued his research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology prior to his independent career at Texas A&M, where he spent six years before joining UF in 2007.
“My early introduction to polymers was coincidental,” Miller said. “I just knew I wanted to make stuff, so polymer chemistry was definitely something that piqued my interest. I never let go of making polymers since then.”
Miller and graduate student Ryan Martin received the 2011 Cade Prize for Innovation for creating a water-degradable plastic that could be used to make cups, bags and other plastic articles for dry packaging applications.
“The packaging industry is a $400 billion per year enterprise,” Miller said. “It’s easy to make a polyethylene bag because the infrastructure is in place, but people have shown that they are willing to pay more for a greener plastic.”
Writer: Anna Quintana