Many a lab is on a quest to create brand-new materials that repair themselves, like when the ragged edges of a tear “grow” together. Marek Urban, a quiet, thoughtful polymer chemist in Clemson University’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, believes that may not be necessary. His paper published in the October 2018 issue of Science characterizes self-healing properties in existing commodity materials.
Urban and his scores of current and former students first showed in a 2009 Science paper and again most recently in the October 2018 article (also reported in Nature Reviews Materials and other science news outlets) that existing polymers can be “tweaked” at the molecular level to repair themselves. In doing so, they strike a seemingly ideal scenario: technology that provides a competitive advantage while requiring a low level of investment.
Urban’s take on creating something new is both pragmatic and generous — academic science with an eye toward industry implementation and a concern for the planet’s future.
Self-healing materials have myriad potential uses, from paint and protective coatings to sensor surfaces. Urban says he hopes his focus on the improvement of existing materials will increase the durability of products that now end up in landfills.
“In the self-healing polymer community, Professor Urban is well-known for his unorthodox approaches to topics studied at different places in the world,” says Sybrand van der Zwaag, a professor of novel aerospace materials in the Netherlands and director of a Dutch national program on self-healing materials. “He was one of the early USA-based scientists to leave behind the encapsulation concept developed by the Champaign-Urbana team and to address molecular self-healing approaches. His lab is well-known for combining excellent chemistry with innovative physical characterization techniques.”
At the outset of his research, Urban figured that companies would be more likely to invest in technologies that don’t require large outlays of capital.
“You don’t want to build another factory to create self-healing properties. You’d like to have add-on value to existing technologies,” Urban says.
To be sure, Urban says, “This is not a proposition to industries who want to stay stagnant.” Innovators, on the other hand, “are looking for ways to become more competitive and would like to make investments of that kind.”
Urban attended college at the AGH University of Science and Technology in his hometown of Krakow, Poland. His father, a physician, died at 33, when Urban was 8. His father’s family had emphasized education; five uncles were also physicians. His mother encouraged his curiosity and his natural inclination to experiment. Urban says he was driven to translating discoveries “into enhancing human lives and helping people.” So the promising hockey player chose a life of science.
Urban moved to the United States in 1979 and earned a master’s from Marquette and a doctorate from Michigan Tech, then completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Case Western Reserve University. He has been pursuing his research at Clemson since 2013.
Urban’s work offers a balance to a field that often struggles with an image problem. “People think of chemistry as something that will be polluting, something that will be dangerous,” he says. “If you think of just plastics, ranging from simple transfusion bags to various implants to many other things, they save millions and millions of lives.
“If you can tweak existing polymers — let’s say latex or existing materials — to become more sustainable and more durable because of the self-healing properties, they become more functional. Fewer will be disposed, and obviously that leads to other consequences, to more greener chemistries and a smaller footprint.”
For Urban, the concept of self-healing materials goes hand-in-glove with there being less environmental impact to heal.