Chemical and biomolecular engineering professor Richard P. Wool of the University of Delaware was honored with the Academic Award for using computational design strategies to guide the invention of an array of low-toxicity biobased polymers and other materials. Wool and his colleagues use sustainable feedstocks as varied as vegetable oil, recycled paper, chicken feathers, and flax fiber to make pressure-sensitive adhesives, composite resins, foams, and synthetic leather.
These materials are being integrated into products such as circuit boards, packaging, automobiles, wind turbines, roofing materials, and shoes. With the biobased chemistry, these products can be manufactured using less water and energy and with less toxic waste generated compared with processes starting from petroleum-based feedstocks.
Wool’s efforts on developing greener materials are particularly diverse, says chemistry professor Bruce H. Lipshutz of the University of California, Santa Barbara, a 2011 Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award winner. “It is extremely encouraging to see so much of this group’s successful, industrially implemented chemistry being benign by design.”
To come up with the biobased products, Wool developed the Twinkling Fractal Theory to help predict the thermal and mechanical properties of a selected material based on its molecular structure. The researchers then evaluate the potential toxicity of the material’s components using EPA’s EPI Suite software. By following this strategy, Wool and his team have synthesized a range of new products, some of which are now being produced by specialty chemicals firm Dixie Chemical for a worldwide market.
In one example, to make new plastics Wool developed environmentally benign lignin-based monomers as replacements for petroleum-derived styrene, a neurotoxic and potentially carcinogenic compound. In another example, Wool and his collaborators, including Crey Bioresins, a start-up company he founded, designed a thermoplastic foam made from soy-derived fatty acids and lignin to replace polyurethane foam. The biobased materials avoid the need for toxic isocyanates used to make polyurethane, which improves worker safety.
Another of Wool’s inventions is a breathable “ecoleather.” Made from soybean oil and natural fibers—including chicken feathers and flax—the synthetic leather avoids the traditional chemical leather tanning process. Wool’s start-up company, Eco-Leather Corp., has entered into collaborations with footwear companies Nike and Puma to use the leather substitute in their products.
“The Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award will enhance our development of sustainable materials from renewable resources in support of human health and the environment,” Wool says. “In particular, we still need to work on low-toxicity replacements for commodity plastics such as polystyrene, PVC, polyurethane, polycarbonate, adhesives, foams, and composite resins, in addition to leatherlike materials.”
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