Extraordinary Changes for Everyday Products

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All scientific discoveries, large and small, start with one common goal—to advance knowledge, be it about our bodies and health, our environment, or even our universe. But the most exciting discoveries, built on years of research and collaboration, fundamentally change how we understand our world. 

In a special summer series, we'll talk with five Northwestern scientists whose work is already changing their fields, and could potentially change our lives. 

Tobin J. Marks is the Vladimir N. Ipatieff Research Professor of Chemistry in the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences and professor of materials science and engineering in the McCormick School of Engineering and Applied Science at Northwestern University. 

The Evanston resident’s work has already changed products used every day.  And that’s just the beginning.

Tobin J. MarksTobin J. MarksWhat is the focus of your research?
I’m interested in creating unusual substances, ones that never existed before and that demonstrate unusual properties.  I focus on this in several ways.

One property has to do with molecular electronics.  For example, picture the circuitry in your computer or cell phone for a minute.  Imagine if you could print those circuits the way a newspaper is printed, rather than building them one by one in a chip plant.  To print electronics, people need special inks -- so that’s one thing we’ve developed.  Electronic circuits have many aspects to them, so we developed suites of these inks that print all the pieces of the transistors on simple, recycled plastics.  In fact, we started a company called Polyera, located in Skokie, that now employs 25 people. 

Why are printed circuits better than the traditional kind?
One of the advantages is that they are very durable, so you don’t have to worry about cracking when dropped.  Plus, the price will drop dramatically. 

We’re also working on the inks to print solar cells that are more efficient, meaning a higher percent of the light that falls on them gets turned into electric current.  It seems each year, we overcome new barriers in this area that will make solar energy more efficient and cost-effective sooner.

What other areas do you work in?
Another thing we’ve learned is that if you combine dissimilar materials in a particular way, you increase their efficiency.  For example, putting a thin layer between two materials -- and the layer may only be a few molecules thick --  dramatically increases the efficiency of a device.  A good analogy is paint and primer.  If you put down a thin coat of primer, you’ll need much less paint and the coating will be more durable.  The fancy term for this is interfacial layers, and that’s one area we focus on.

I also focus on catalysis.  Catalysts change the rate at which chemical reactions take place.  Here’s why that’s useful. Have you ever noticed that each time you go to the grocery store, the plastic bags seem thinner and stronger?  Turns out that making them thinner and stronger has to do with the catalyst used to create the plastic.  This finding of ours is the basis of what’s now a $2-3 billion/year industry that makes environmentally friendly plastics more recyclable, thinner, and stronger.

In Brazil, companies are using these new catalysts to convert sugar cane to plastics without using petroleum.  Think about that for a moment.  Plastics that do not need oil for their production.

But aren’t plastics bad for the environment as well?
Our dependence on oil is worse.  It’s what we do with the plastics that is good or bad.  In Europe, they are far ahead of us when it comes to using plastic wisely.  They reuse and recycle plastics much more than we do here.  For example, you could just take those plastic grocery bags back with you the store each time and reuse them again and again.  They will last forever, won’t attract bugs, and are waterproof, light and strong.

What advice would you give young people?
Science is fun.  Teaching is fun.  Exploring the unknown is fun.  Getting feedback from people who use things you help invent is fun.  And working at a place like Northwestern, a collaborative environment with lots of different kinds of people, can be satisfying. 

So many young people these days are interested in alternative energy.  I would say to them, if you want to change the world, you can make laws, or you can figure out the cause and effect of the things that need to be improved – and improve them.  That’s science.  Hard work, yes, but it’s rewarding.  And it can make a lasting improvement in our world.

To do this work, we collaborate with all kinds of scientists -- physicists and engineers and computer scientists.  We learn from each other and have a lot of fun solving problems together.

Why does so much game-changing science take place in interdisciplinary work like yours?
Someone once described creativity as taking concepts from diverse areas and bringing them together.  When you do that, and the stars align just right, you see things from different perspectives and in new ways that allow you to create something totally new. 

And you know who actually does this work?  Students!  They talk to those working in other disciplines and learn from each other and do great things.  They learn things that aren’t in textbooks yet or in courses yet.  That’s exhilarating.  That’s fun.

How did you get involved in energy research?
In October 2008, I read an op-ed column by Thomas Friedman in the New York Times about how much money the United States was borrowing from China to spend in Saudi Arabia for oil, and I decided we all had to do something. 

How did you fall in love with science?
Like so many scientists, I had an inspiring high school teacher who made it all seem fun.  We need to do more to keep those remarkable middle school and high school science teachers actively engaging young minds.

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