Health & Science

UT-Austin Professor Snags $100,000 Chemistry Prize From Houston-Based Foundation

The 2016 Norman Hackerman Award in Chemical Research goes to Dr. Christopher Ellison at the University of Texas at Austin, for his creation of new polymers that could lead to more environmentally-friendly products.

Dr. Christopher Ellison
Dr. Christopher Ellison

The Houston-based Welch Foundation supports chemical research across Texas, and its annual Norman Hackerman Award helps recognize the work of an early-career chemistry professor at a Texas university.

This year’s Hackerman winner is Dr. Christopher Ellison at UT-Austin.

“Chemistry is a central science,” Ellison said. “You look around at anything, the DNA in our bodies, the phone we’re talking on right now, (it’s all) built from chemistry.”

Hackerman was a chemist who rose to become president of the University of Texas at Austin and then served as president of Rice University from 1970 to 1985. He was also an internationally known expert in metal corrosion.

Ellison’s research team works with polymers, which are large chain-like molecules. His Laboratory for Nanostructured Polymeric Material has developed some new, environmentally-friendly ways to manufacture synthetic fibers.

“Manufacturing of fibers oftentimes uses a lot of heat or a lot of organic solvent,” Ellison said. “We’ve engineered ways through chemistry to avoid both of those issues: not using any heat energy or solvent.”

His team is also working on the next generation of flame retardants. Flame retardant chemicals are found in numerous home and consumer products, including couches and mattresses. The chemicals have escaped into the environment and have been found in human blood, urine and breast milk. Studies link the chemicals to health risks such as cancer and endocrine disruption.

Ellison and his team created a non-toxic flame retardant from liquid dopamine. It’s the same dopamine that functions as a neurotransmitter in our bodies, mediating cognitive functions such as movement, pleasure and reward-seeking.

“What we do is essentially lock it up in a polymeric form. So we stick many of these dopamine units together to make a really large big molecule,” Ellison said.

Ellison’s researchers soaked pieces of polyurethane, a common foam used in furniture, in a liquid containing dopamine polymers. The process made the foam as fire resistant as current flame retardants, if not more resistant, he said.

Ellison explained that the dopamine polymers will not shed from products as easily, and are too big to be absorbed in the human body. In addition, the building blocks of the dopamine polymers are non-toxic.

Ellison predicts a version of this flame retardant will take another three to five years to be put into commercial use.

Dr. Jeremy May, a chemistry professor at the University of Houston, praised Ellison’s work.

“He’s able to mix and address multiple problems at the same time and that’s key,” May said.

May also receives funding from the Welch Foundation.

“The Welch foundation has really magnified chemistry in Texas,” May said. “Every department has multiple grant holders and most have multiple Welch chairs, which allows those chairs to pursue maybe more risky research.”

The Hackerman prize comes with $100,000, no strings attached.

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Florian Martin

Business Reporter

Florian Martin is currently the News 88.7 business reporter. Florian’s stories can frequently be heard on other public radio stations throughout Texas and on NPR nationwide. Some of them have earned him awards from Texas AP Broadcasters, the Houston Press Club, National Association of Real Estate Editors, and Public Radio...

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