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Research on Sustainable Chemistry Earns NSF Award

Jeffery Byers (Photo by Caitlin Cunningham)

By Ed Hayward | Chronicle Staff

Published: Feb. 19, 2015

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Jeffery Byers, whose research focuses on the development of sustainable chemistry including the catalytic synthesis of new, environmentally friendly polymers, has received a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation, the agency’s most prestigious grant for junior faculty.

The five-year, $655,000 grant will support Byers’ project, “Iron Polymerization Catalysis for the Synthesis of High Performance Degradable Polymers,” an initiative of his lab to convert bio-renewable lactic acid into useful, biodegradable plastic materials.

Byers, an organic/organometallic chemist, investigates underdeveloped chemistry that utilizes predominately non-noble metals in search of useful processes in areas such as organic and inorganic chemistry and materials science. A leading focus of the Byers lab is the perfection of new techniques to synthesize new types of polymers that can be used in chemical engineering, biomedical design, and sustainable chemistry.

“I’m grateful to the NSF for this opportunity,” said Byers, who joined the BC faculty in 2011. “It’s a very challenging time to get funding, but I am also excited for the recognition that the scientific community has had for this chemistry. The research is a little bit off the beaten path. So it’s been challenging to convince people we can do what we do, but people see what we’ve accomplished so far and this grant provides some validation for our approach. I’m excited to see where this takes us.”

Byers has developed simple catalysts using iron that synthesize polylactic acid from renewable resources. The goal is to develop a polymer that is highly biodegradable, yet strong enough to be used in everyday products, such as plastic bottles.

The process could ultimately help reduce the paper products waste stream and reduce the harmful environmental impacts of less degradable plastic products that are currently used today.

But before polylactic acid can be used on a large scale, Byers said, the brittle nature of the material needs to be resolved. The grant will support the lab’s work to diversify the physical properties of polylactic acid.

“We’ll do that by including other molecules into the polylactic acid matrix, to make compounds called co-polymers, which are essentially a plastic whose chemical structure is composed of a mixture of two different compounds,” said Byers, who earned his PhD at the California Institute of Technology in 2007 and was a postdoctoral fellow at MIT from 2007 to 2011.

Furthermore, the lab is trying to change the architecture of polylactic acid by altering its molecular structure from linear to cyclic, an advance that could make the material more flexible. Cyclic polymers have proved difficult to synthesize in large quantities, which has limited their development and commercial applications. But Byers hopes to develop a simpler approach to synthesizing cyclic polymers that will allow for their synthesis on a large scale.

A significant component of the CAREER award is to increase the broader impacts of science so as to make it more visible and appealing to the general public.

Therefore, the grant funding will also support a pre-collegiate summer institute for high school students, known as “P2P: Paper to Plastics,” which he established with Assistant Professor of Chemistry Eranthie Weerapana in 2012. The program brings 16 high school students, predominately girls and students of color who are under-represented in the sciences, to campus for a program that combines mentoring, research, career exploration and college preparation.

“In addition to our ongoing efforts to address important scientific challenges in the area of biodegradable polymers, the CAREER award funding will help support the P2P program, which we’re very excited about,” said Byers. “It’s a multidisciplinary program that combines research, undergraduate student mentors, graduate student advisors, and high school students with a passion for science. And it’s a lot of fun.”