Each week, staff writer Paul Wood talks with a high-tech difference-maker. This week, meet University of Illinois chemistry Professor STEVEN ZIMMERMAN, who leads a team that is inventing new ways to break down the polyurethane that makes up close to 10 percent of our landfills and repurpose it in useful ways, such as adhesives. He did his graduate work at Columbia University in New York.
What made you interested in taking polymeric materials that do not biodegrade and finding new uses for them?
Sustainability is such an important topic these days with global climate change and plastic waste accumulation in the oceans constantly on the news. So we saw an opportunity to contribute with some of our research on new types of polyurethanes.
Who else is on your team?
The project is being led by graduate student, Ephraim Morado and he has support from undergraduate student Alayna Johnson.
We have polyurethane in our house for durable floors. Is there any danger from this limited use of the chemical in the home?
No. Polyurethanes are generally safe. They are found all over the home, from your memory-foam mattress to rubber floor mats to running shoes.
It’s also used in everything from paints to insulation. Why is polyurethane useful for such diverse purposes?
Polyurethanes are very durable and water-resistant. By changing the chemical structure of the building blocks that make up the polymer, their properties can be changed from rubbery to stiff to foam-like.
How much waste is generated every year in this country?
Not sure I can give you a number, but I read that over 10 percent of landfill waste by mass is synthetic polymers, and the majority of this is polyurethane.
Are other chemicals slowly replacing it in such uses?
I don’t think so. Rather, the focus is on recycling and repurposing these materials at the end of their life.
What is the general idea you have for breaking down polyurethane waste?
Polyurethanes are made from two components, called monomers, hundreds or thousands of which bond together to form a giant, long polymer, the polyurethane. We changed one of the components so it contains an easily broken group that we can activate at will and thereby break the polymer down to smaller pieces.
Then you turn it into other useful products. What would be a couple of examples?
We broke down a rubbery polyurethane and converted it to an adhesive that outperforms superglue and into a photoactive coating that is like the coating used in transition lenses.
It would be great if labs could use widely available and safe solvents like vinegar to break down polyurethane materials. How far away it that in the future?
We are working on this, but science is always unpredictable. You often don’t know whether something will work or how long it will take. In fact, things frequently happen that you weren’t expecting, and this can lead in interesting new directions.
What other interests do you have in chemistry? In your non-academic life?
My research group is working on a variety of problems, including trying to discover a drug to treat myotonic dystrophy type 1, the most common form of adult-onset muscular dystrophy.
Who is funding this research?
The National Science Foundation and the University of Illinois.
Have you ever make any mistakes you’ve been able to learn from?
I often make mistakes, partly because I like to work in new areas with which I am not so familiar. It’s a great way to learn new things, and I owe a lot to my students who are on the front lines of the research and constantly teach me things. Outside of research, I love teaching organic chemistry to our fabulous undergraduates.
Do you have any patents?
We have multiple patents on other inventions and have just filed a disclosure on this new effort.
TECH TIDBITS ... from STEVEN ZIMMERMAN
Do you have a favorite thing to follow on social media, or an app you really love? I am on Twitter but don’t necessarily know how it works, so younger people sometimes cringe at my tweets.
Do you have any wearable electronics? I had a Fitbit for several years but now wear an Apple Watch. To my friends, family, and colleagues: I am not bored while talking to you; just checking messages, because the watch buzzes me with new texts and tweets.
How about an entrepreneur hero? Steve Jobs. Although I wouldn’t call him a hero; I just think he was brilliant in understanding how to make devices that are beautiful, easy to use and hard to live without.