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Saturday, December 09, 2023
The Chemistry Building at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is pictured on June 10, 2010. The view, which includes Lake Mendota in the background, is from the roof of the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Space Science Building.

A new "luckier" way to build plastics

Professor Ive Hermans has a different philosophy when it comes to running a research group and laboratory full of brilliant students.

When Hermans instructs his students, he isn’t angered when they deviate from the original plan and opt from a more imaginative idea. In doing so, Hermans helps them extend the bounds of their knowledge and make new discoveries.

The newest discovery from Hermans’ lab, sparked by this sort of defiant-yet-creative methodology, may change the way plastics are made.

Hermans, who holds a joint appointment within the chemistry and chemical & biological engineering departments at UW-Madison, said that some are calling the lead author lucky.

Joseph Grant, a graduate student in Hermans’ group, sustainability chemistry and catalysis engineering, recently discovered a new catalyst for making plastics, ultimately leading to a potentially new sustainable method for producing the everyday material.

Plastics are essentially made up of building blocks called polymers. In recent years, the chemical industry has been attempting to use a process called oxidative dehydrogenation of propane, ODHP, to better synthesize the components of plastics. Grant helped crack this complex code.

Instead of using the field’s standard chemical material, Silicon Carbide, as a catalyst, Grant used Boron Nitride despite his adviser’s directions. His “serendipitous” idea, as Hermans said some might call it, took the academic world by storm.

During reaction, SiC releases carbon dioxide and other unwanted byproducts, but using BN as a catalyst produced ethene and propene, two industrially useful components.

“If a student would have asked me ‘should I try this?’ I probably would have said no because everyone recognizes this wouldn’t work,” Hermans said, although he was glad Grant explored new options in research.

Hermans noted that Grant made another contribution to the field, also by chance, a few months earlier regarding impurities and their effects. Both of these findings were featured on the front covers of Science.

“Some people just attract luck by being very diligent and systematic and precise and carefully analyzing things,” Hermans said, demonstrating his uneasiness to attribute Grant’s findings to luck alone.

“If you are carefully looking and systematically analyzing which variables are important in a certain system, you have a higher chance that you will discover something than if you just shoot around some arrows in the dark and hope that you will get lucky,” Hermans added.

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While it may be a long time before this method is implemented in industrial plants, Hermans, who teaches an introductory chemistry course at UW-Madison, said there is a lesson to be learned from Grant’s discovery.

Hermans’ message to all graduate students is to go beyond the guidance of what your adviser expects of you and to do more. If a student feels something is worth their time and is important to their field, Hermans suggests doing it anyways.

“The more systematic you look at something, precisely try to understand something, the easier it is to get lucky,” Hermans said.

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