The plastics scientist talks about the process behind his work in polymers and what the future holds for inventors.
Joseph DeSimone is a chemist, an inventor and a man with vision into the future. He holds more than 115 patents. One of his first involved a green approach to making high-tech polymers–plastics like Teflon and Gore-Tex–without the use of hazardous solvents. DeSimone spoke of his work, about what it’s like to invent things and about what he sees as the role of science in this century, with EarthSky’s Jorge Salazar.
How would you describe what you do?
We work at the interface of a lot of different things. And I think at one level we’re problem solvers. At another level we’re entrepreneurs. I don’t know exactly how to describe it any more or less accurately than that.
Really, at the end of the day, we’re materials scientists. We like to apply the capabilities of polymer science and new polymer chemistries to tackle problems, mostly today in the life sciences. [Editor’s note: Polymer scientists and polymer chemists work with chains of molecules–built up from many similar units bonded together–creating materials such as plastics.]
We make things. That’s one of the reasons why I like polymer science. At the end of the day you actually have something.
Tell us about your upbringing. What sort of upbringing fosters an inventor?
My parents are terrific people. My father is a tailor born in Italy, and my mother is an accountant. We had constant encouragement and strong schooling, and we had active participation in science fairs and the like. My father was very meticulous and inquisitive, and certainly showed us leadership through example. And that was a great environment.
In high school, I fell in love with biology and chemistry classes. I remember one day in particular, the teacher in high school explaining pH acidity and base acidity. And I remember thinking, you know, I have absolutely no idea what he just said.
I don’t think he really knew what he’d just said. So I went home that night and read up. I taught myself about pH and came in the next day. As the class topic continued that next day I remember basically explaining to the classroom all about pH. And everybody got it, including him I think. And I knew then I had a knack for not only understanding, but also explaining.
Tell us about one of your first breakthroughs, a greener way to make Teflon.
When I was a student, I was enamored with polymers. I decided to go to graduate school and major in polymer science and polymer chemistry at Virginia Tech. My Ph.D. advisor there was Jim McGrath–a terrific researcher, scientist and professor. He exposed me to an emerging area at the time called super-critical fluid extraction. This is basically compressed carbon dioxide. It was being used in the food industry for extracting caffeine from coffee beans–so-called “naturally decaffeinated coffee with nature’s effervescence.”
So we started working with polymers, using supercritical fluids. That became the foundation for how I launched my career.
I’m a firm believer that, as the business people will say, strategy is all about being different. Some of the most fertile ground for innovation lies between fields. For example — putting polymer synthesis together with supercritical fluids. Recognizing that it would be a green manufacturing process, if in fact we could make polymers in CO2.
Through a partnership with DuPont, we did that. We began making Teflon in CO2. We pioneered that. It was perceived to be valuable, especially because DuPont was being hammered because of the environmentally unfriendly way Teflon was made at the time.
The new method–using CO2–became a much more environmentally preferable way to make Teflon. So, that really launched us into a good run of 15 years or so, working in CO2 and doing a lot of different polymer chemistry in it.
Sounds like it was something radical.
It was very different. To run a chemical reaction in compressed carbon dioxide required new equipment, new ways of doing reactions. We had to invent new reaction vessels. We had to invent a lot of equipment and instrumentation.
I’m really intrigued by that. I like doing those things. I think it starts bridging more towards chemical engineering at that point.
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