A research team that includes three generations of Blugolds is gaining international attention for developing a new method for converting waste plastics into useful chemicals, a process that has the potential to significantly reduce a waste stream that's currently sent to landfills.
The research — published in the journal Chemical Communications and featured in the online March issue of the Royal Society of Chemistry publication Chemistry World — involves converting waste plastics into chemicals that can be reused to remake other plastics or be used as building blocks for chemical applications in the pharmaceutical or cosmetics industries, said Dr. Mike Carney, a professor of chemistry at UW-Eau Claire and one of the project's leaders.
A plastic is created by linking smaller substances together via chemical reactions, which then form new chemical bonds between the substances. The researchers' work essentially reverses the chemical reactions that formed the initial plastic, effectively unzipping the plastics into smaller compounds that can be reused, Carney said of the project, which was funded by the Research Corporation for Science Advancement.
Carney, a 1983 UW-Eau Claire chemistry graduate who now teaches at his alma mater, is collaborating on the project with Dr. Nicholas Robertson, a 2004 UW-Eau Claire chemistry graduate who teaches at Northland College in Ashland. Undergraduate chemistry students from UW-Eau Claire and Northland College also are part of the research team.
While not yet commercially viable because the catalyst the researchers used is prohibitively expensive, it's an exciting proof-of-concept, Robertson of the research. Hopefully, he said, the work will motivate other researchers to consider methods for making use of waste plastics.
The project is giving undergraduate students at two Wisconsin colleges opportunities to be part of meaningful research with real-world implications, Carney said, noting that the project resonates with many students who are concerned about sustainability and the environmental impact of the chemical industry.
The environmental aspect of the research was a draw for Ryley Glasgow, s sophomore chemistry and computer science major from Barron.
"I don't think society puts enough weight on research in this area, despite how much of a problem our impact on the earth is becoming," said Glasgow, who's been part of the project for a year. "I like knowing that I've applied my skills to something that might eventually benefit society."
The project also gives his students a chance to collaborate with Robertson, a successful scientist who first discovered his passion for research as an undergraduate student at UW-Eau Claire, Carney said.
"Through working with Nick, current students can 'see' where they could be just a few years down the road," Carney said, noting that Robertson was part of his team of undergraduate research students for three years before attending graduate school at Cornell University. "My current students 'see' that a UW-Eau Claire graduate can attend a top-tier graduate school. They also 'see' firsthand how Nick is using that graduate training in his successful independent research program. I can 'tell' my current students all these things, but 'seeing' is a much more effective tool than 'telling.'"
When Carney began teaching chemistry at UW-Eau Claire in 2000, Robertson was a freshman who enrolled in one of his general chemistry classes. Robertson proved himself to be a bright and ambitious student, so Carney invited him to work with him on a summer research project that he was just getting underway.
"I knew little of what scientific research entailed, so I was eager to have the opportunity to experience it," said Robertson, an Eau Claire native. "Undergraduate research changed everything for me. Up to that point, general chemistry was the only chemistry class I had so I didn't understand the science yet. But the processes in lab were fun and I was instantly hooked. I enjoyed working on new reactions that no one in the world had tried before. The novelty of that was exciting and it's the main reason I decided to pursue graduate school and, subsequently, a career in undergraduate academics, where I have an active research group of my own."
His work as an undergraduate researcher helped him gain acceptance to and excel in a top-tier graduate school, Robertson said.
"I became pretty self-sufficient by the time I was a senior," Robertson said. "Having that much research experience as an undergraduate paved the way for my successes in graduate school. My lab skills enabled me to hit the ground running and accomplish more than I could have had I not had such extensive research experience. Additionally, while a student at UW-Eau Claire, I was a co-author on two publications in peer-reviewed journals. Publications as an undergraduate carry an immense amount of weight and can really help students get accepted by top graduate programs."
Recognizing the impact undergraduate research had on his life, Robertson now tries to give the students he teaches at Northland those same kinds of quality experiences.
"I teach undergraduate researchers the same way I was taught; I get them working in the lab right away," Robertson said. "The sooner they learn the ropes, the more they experience and learn, and the sooner they can start being productive researchers. I haven't run a single reaction myself since I've been at Northland College. It's my students who do all of the lab work. I help them figure out how to set up reactions and coach them through the process, but they do all the hands-on work."
Since Northland is a small college with limited infrastructure to support complex research, Robertson has been collaborating with Carney and his students on projects for several years.
So when his research team decided in spring 2013 to focus on converting waste plastics into useful chemicals, Robertson asked Carney and his students to help. The project required complex catalyst synthesis, which is something that Carney's student team specializes in, he said.
"His students made the catalyst, and my students tested them for their ability to depolymerize plastics," said Robertson, noting that UW-Eau Claire's students' access to and skill in using state-of-the-art equipment and technology greatly enhanced the project. "As a result of the effective collaboration, the project moved far faster and was more successful, which is very exciting."
Having three generations of Blugolds involved in a research project reflects UW-Eau Claire's longtime commitment to undergraduate research, said Carney, noting that the chemistry department is recognized nationally for the strength of its undergraduate research program.
The multigenerational collaboration also reflects the strength of the relationships UW-Eau Claire chemistry faculty develop with their students, Robertson said.
"My time with Dr. Carney changed my career path and enabled me to reach a far higher academic level than I otherwise would have been able to," Robertson said. "I feel incredibly fortunate to have ended up at UW-Eau Claire and in Dr. Carney's research group. Those experiences led me to a career that has been immensely satisfying and enjoyable. And as a result of his efforts, I have been able to mentor students who have started pursuing graduate school as well, so the cycle continues."