Milk into milk cartons?

Tuesday, January 31, 2017 - 3:30pm

Could skim milk powder be used one day to make plastic milk cartons? Marc Hillmyer, a professor in the University of Minnesota’s College of Science and Engineering, is working with scientists from Land O’Lakes to find out if it’s possible.

Hillmyer and his group have been creating sustainable polymers from renewable resources like corn and even agricultural waste. Polymers are the molecules of plastics that are used in household and other products. A Land O’Lakes scientist learned of their work and approached Hillmyer about a possible joint research project using skim milk powder—a byproduct of butter making—as the raw material.

“It’s treated mostly as waste,” Hillmyer says of skim milk powder, “and if they have a waste product that they can extract value from, it makes good business sense.”

He explains that skim milk powder is high in the sugar lactose—a disaccharide that can be chemically transformed into molecules that have greater value.

Hillmyer’s group is about six months into a three-year sponsored research project for which Land O’Lakes is funding a post-doctoral research associate in his laboratory. He says this is the first time he has worked with an animal-derived raw material, and that his group has generated some promising leads so far. “We’re learning that this is a versatile platform chemical for making other derivatives,” he explains.

Hillmyer says working with local scientists from Land O’ Lakes has led to some good give-and-take. “They have a very active and engaged group who are excited about the possibilities,” he says. “If we can take this waste product and make something the company can sell, we can advance the science of sustainability and promote the business model of Land O’Lakes.”