A $2.39 million grant has been awarded to the Kansas Polymer Research Center by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). The federal grant will be used to form the National Institute for Materials Advancement (NIMA) at the Pittsburg State University Tyler Research Center.
The research center will serve as the foundation and launchpad for the new institute, which promises to diversify the regional workforce, support business relocations and start-ups and result in multiple career opportunities for students and community members alike.
The KPRC is unique. PSU has one of the first Plastics Engineering Technology programs in the nation, which is now 50 years old, and a growing Polymer Chemistry program unlike anything within hundreds of miles.
Also unique are the university’s academic degree programs whose students work alongside scientists. The research center combines internationally recognized scientists from industry with academic laboratory resources in a state-of-the-art research facility. This is the second grant in two years that NIST has awarded to Pitt State’s plastics and polymers programs.
According to KPRC Executive Director Tim Dawsey, regional high schools and community colleges will be pivotal in the initiative.
“It’s (going to) be a continuous loop, if you will, in the sense that we’re a university…we’re a teaching university, and so we’ve got to have students…because in order to do research, I have to have students that support our researchers and faculty,” Dawsey said. “To encourage those researchers to keep things going, they’ve got to have this steady pool of students coming in.”
Dawsey said the output of that are the Pittsburg State graduates.
“If we’re going to attract businesses to come into the area, we got to have the skilled workforce, specifically in this area polymers and plastics,” Dawsey said. “So, we have got to attract students, then we got to attract researchers to work with the students. The students have to graduate and go out in the workforce to fill the need in the Labor Department out there–a skilled workforce in high-paying, technology-based jobs in manufacturing. That will bring either new businesses or attract established businesses in here to set up operations so that we have those workforces.”
Dawsey said he wants to attract graduates back that left the area because there were no jobs here.
“Now they (have) kids who want to get back to grandma and grandpa, and we want to be able to provide those opportunities,” Dawsey said. “So NIMA is really about driving the University’s growth and exposure in the industry. There’s nobody else anywhere around this area that has everything we have. Our plastics program…is one of the top in the nation. We have our polymer chemistry program that’s really growing…and we’re putting a lot of focus on our material science programs. We’ve got a polymer research center here that’s been doing new, novel research on bio-based materials and other polymer materials since ‘94. So, we’ve got everything here to build this.”
According to Dawsey, these specific funds will be directed toward hiring key personnel and the purchase of equipment, both necessary for their continued advancement in materials research areas.
“One of the challenges that we (have) is we’ve got a plastics program, we’ve got a polymer chemistry program, we’ve got polymer research facility…and I’m looking at putting a lot of new equipment in,” Dawsey said. “Well, somebody (has to) maintain all that equipment…somebody (has to) identify it, inspect it, help procure it, install it, and operate it. We (have to) maintain that equipment, we (have to) get the equipment calibrated, and we’ve got to have a facility manager here.”
NIMA will focus on the development of new technologies in plastics and polymers that support efforts which contribute to the advancement of sustainable products. The research center already maintains a long history of works with bio-based materials. Dawsey said sustainability issues open another area for research and practice.
“We’ve got all these agricultural products, byproducts, (and) agricultural waste,” Dawsey said. “…wouldn’t it be cool if we can figure out how to use those various components to make materials that can go into making new eyeglass frames, or new cushions for shoes, new foam cushion seat covers, or whatever?”
These efforts have influences in areas of agriculture, basic and applied science and polymer and materials chemistry.
“That’s what I think is really so exciting about the plastics and polymers arena–it goes into everything,” Dawsey said. “Your glasses, your cell phone, your iPad, in your car everything is polymers and plastics, body implants… You’ve got all of these things, so you’ve got to have people with the technical understanding in here.”