National Science Board selects leading chemists to establish new Science and Technology Center

July 30, 1999

CHAPEL HILL - The National Science Board has approved a new Science and Technology Center to be led by North Carolina and Texas scientists conducting groundbreaking research into environmentally safe solvents.

Chemists and engineers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, N.C. State University, N.C. A&T State University and the University of Texas at Austin will be partners in the effort and share in the cooperative agreement.

Under the auspices of the National Science Foundation, the universities will establish the Science and Technology Center (STC) for Environmentally Responsible Carbon Dioxide Processes. Dr. Joseph M. DeSimone, William R. Kenan Jr. distinguished professor of chemistry at UNC-CH and chemical engineering at N.C. State, will direct the center. Dr. Ruben G. Carbonell, KOSA professor and chair of chemical engineering at N.C. State, will be co-director.

"We understand that this cooperative research agreement will be the largest ever received by any set of investigators in the 16-campus UNC system," DeSimone said. "An estimated $18 million could come from the NSF over five years to support the $24 million center."

The exact amount of NSF funding will be negotiated later, but the center has the potential to last 10 years or more and could result in a total of approximately $35 million to $40 million from NSF during the decade, he said. Only five such centers are being authorized this year, from a total pool of about 300 pre-proposals submitted to NSF more than a year ago.

The new STC will be the leading facility in the world dedicated to discovering environmentally friendly processes using alternative solvents, DeSimone said. It will build on the pioneering research already done by center faculty.

"Our goal is to lead the environmental revolution in significantly reducing the amount of organic and water wastes generated in the manufacture of polymers and chemicals, in painting, cleaning and coating operations and in producing textiles and paper products," he said.

Currently, more than 30 billion pounds of organic and halogenated solvents are used worldwide each year in manufacturing, and considerably more water is used and contaminated by related processes, Desimone said.

"With establishment of this center, North Carolina could become the Silicon Valley of environmentally responsible science," he said.

Carbon dioxide long was thought by scientists to be extremely limited as a solvent until DeSimone and his students incorporated it into polymerization processes they designed to make common plastics like Teflon, Plexiglas and polystyrene. An outgrowth of the research included design of surfactants (detergents) for carbon dioxide that enabled it to be a powerful solvent for many solvent- and water-intensive industries.

"Carbon dioxide has great advantages over other solvents," DeSimone said. "It's inexpensive, it's non-toxic and non-flammable, and it's accessible in gas and liquid forms."

The new center will be a model of cooperation among the universities of the UNC system and UT-Austin and between industry and academe, as well as a model for future research, Carbonell said. Increasingly, innovative science requires multi-disciplinary teams that span a variety of academic, industrial and government institutions.

"With this award we can be real leaders in the education of students in a multidisciplinary environment," he said. "This also includes students from kindergarten through grade 12, who will benefit from development of innovative teaching modules by center faculty."

Carbon dioxide will become the solvent of the future, the main enabling ingredient in most high-tech industries such as plastics, pharmaceuticals, electronics and biotechnology, Carbonell said.

For several years, the William R. Kenan Jr. Institute for Engineering, Technology and Science has supported development of commercially viable technologies based on carbon dioxide processes, DeSimone said. As an extension of its commitment, the William R. Kenan, Jr. Fund for Engineering, Technology and Science, which provides annual core funding to the Kenan Institute, made an additional commitment of $500,000 as a component of UNC-CH's cost-sharing contribution to the successful proposal.

"We are committed not only to the viability of a variety of carbon dioxide-based processes, but we also are extremely supportive of professors Carbonell and DeSimone in their efforts to provide technical and administrative leadership in this important area," said Dr. Harold B. Hopfenberg, director of the Kenan Institute.

Research into carbon dioxide by DeSimone and his students has already led to commercialization of a novel process that utilizes carbon dioxide instead of organic solvents for dry cleaning. The resulting company, Micell Technologies, has generated a dry-cleaning franchise business called Hangers.

The first Hangers franchises using the new technology have been operating since October in Wilmington, N.C., and more will open later this year in Chapel Hill, Raleigh, Greensboro and Austin. DuPont has begun constructing a new pilot plant in Fayetteville for producing Teflon polymer products in carbon dioxide, a technology licensed from UNC-CH.

"These systems have proven environmentally friendly and energy efficient and have significant performance advantages over competing processes using water or organic liquid solvents," DeSimone said. "Many other potential applications for carbon dioxide as a solvent remain to be developed."

The industrially funded Kenan Center for the Utilization of Carbon Dioxide in Manufacturing, another joint effort between UNC-CH and NC State, will serve as an industrial outreach component for the newly established Science and Technology Center.

DeSimone can be reached at 919-962-2166 or via e-mail at
Carbonell's number is 515-2499, e-mail:
Vicki Haithcock of DeSimone's office can be reached at 962-5468, e-mail:
News Services Contact: David Williamson, 962-8596.
NSF Science and Technology Centers are among the largest and most prestigious research grants awarded by U.S. government. The foundation established the STC Program in 1987 -- announced in President Reagan's State of the Union Address -- to fund important basic research and educational activities and to encourage technology transfer and innovative approaches to interdisciplinary problems. The centers have the opportunity to explore new areas and build bridges among disciplines, institutions and other sectors. They offer the basic research community a significant mechanism to take a longer-term view of science and explore better and more effective ways to educate students. Specifically, center support enables academic research teams to: Two previous competitions led to establishment of 25 comprehensive Science and Technology Centers -- 11 in FY 1989 and 14 in FY 1991. Through attrition, that number declined to 23 and now stands at 28 with addition of the five new centers. Amounts of the awards for the new STCs range from the lowest ($16 million) to the highest ($19.9 million) over five years.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

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