CMU professor Matyjaszewski wins AkzoNobel chemistry award
January 30, 2013 5:00 AM
Andy Starnes / Post-Gazette
By Mark Roth Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
A local pioneer in plastics research has received the inaugural $75,000 North American AkzoNobel Science Award.
Krzysztof Matyjaszewski, the J.C. Warner professor for the natural sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, won the prize from the Dutch plastics conglomerate and the American Chemical Society.
AkzoNobel, which has 55,000 employees in 80 nations, promotes its emphasis on "green chemistry," including such products as energy-saving roof coatings that keep buildings cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter, and biodegradable ingredients for cleaner detergents.
Mr. Matyjaszewski, who earned his Ph.D. in chemistry from the Polish Academy of Sciences, is world-renowned for developing a precise method known as atom transfer radical polymerization for making highly customized plastics.
Some of his lab's latest projects also have an environmentally beneficial emphasis.
To carry out his polymerization method, he said, toxic catalysts such as copper are required. "If you're making an ounce of plastic in the lab, that's not so bad; but if you're making a ton of it in an industrial process, reducing the amount of catalyst becomes very important."
Besides figuring out ways to use as little of the toxic catalysts as possible, he has found a way to recover and reuse it by applying electrical currents to the process.
In one of his industrial contracts, Mr. Matyjaszewski has worked with Honda to greatly reduce the amount of gasoline vapor its car engines emit. By developing a special polyacrylate plastic for intake manifold gaskets, he said, Honda has been able to reduce its gas vapor emissions tenfold.
Another venture he is excited about is developing plastics that can be linked to biological substances for new kinds of medical therapy. One plastic his lab is developing would allow genetic material to be delivered in the body intact, and then released at the targeted site.
The CMU professor is far and away the most highly cited polymer chemist in the world. His research has been footnoted more than 50,000 times in other scientific papers, and he is frequently on insiders' short lists for a future Nobel Prize.
He doesn't know what he'll do with the AkzoNobel prize money, but may use it to enhance a scholarship fund he already has established at his high school in Poland for students interested in pursuing science careers.