AKRON, Ohio (WJW) — For decades, research into polymers, plastics and rubber has put Akron at the center of the global industry.
In recent years, the University of Akron’s National Polymer Innovation Center has partnered with a collective of large, well-known rubber companies including Goodyear, Bridgestone and Uniroyal, along with the area chamber of commerce, Kent State University and lesser-known companies including Avient and Synthomer and the Bounce Innovation Hub, among others — all working toward the same goal.
That goal is to make plastics and rubber more functional and safer for the environment.
On Monday, the White House named the regional effort among 31 Regional Innovation and Technology Hubs eligible for funding from the bipartisan CHIPS and Science Act, passed by congress in August of 2022 to help boost the United States’ competitiveness, innovation and national security.
The funding is intended to help invigorate the research and ultimately help create jobs.
Akron’s effort was among 400 for which proposals were filed across the country for the 31 hubs.
Among the details that are believed to have helped win the declaration is the fact that research into making polymers more sustainable has already been underway here for years.
“We have been doing it for more than 30 years, but really a large focus in the last 10 to 15,” said Mark Soucek, Director of the University of Akron’s School of Polymer Science and Polymer Engineering.
“The vision of this tech hub is really for the various partners to get together and to work on a common problem, which is sustainability in the rubber polymers and so forth — making plastics more recyclable so they don’t end up in the landfill; making tires so that they are recyclable; working on [electric vehicle] batteries; to work on materials for lighter batteries, for EV cars,” said Sue Bausch, the university’s vice president of research.
“That is one of the reasons why we were the perfect group to work with the polymer cluster to advance this research and get a tech hub. So, when you write proposals and you get grants, you have to show a track history,” said Bausch.
Soucek said Ali Dhinojwala and James Eagan of the University of Akron have also already been working on helping to create more environmentally friendly yet functional tire compounds.
Both helped draft the proposal.
And while their research is paying dividends, challenges remain moving them to production.
“Anything you make has to be engineered. It has to be engineered to scale reproducibly and then you have to make an item out of it that actually passes whatever specification that you desire,” said Soucek.
“We can go forth and we can make a relatively sustainable tire, but you need to make the whole supply chain from the get-go because the amount of material you need to put tires on all the cars in the world and different rubber parts and stuff is immense,” he added.
For Bausch — who admitted screaming for joy when she learned the proposal was accepted on Sunday — among the goals is to create new, more sustainable polymers.
“We have had a reputation over the years and as the world has changed, we want to change with it and I think it will re-invigorate that industry,” she added.
The collective expects to get an initial grant of $400,000 to start work on organizing their efforts and then four months from now share in a larger portion of the $10 billion allocated by Congress.
“This isn’t to start something. It’s to finish it,” said Soucek.