Thursday, May 5, 2011

Chemical Engineer Honored by Foundation

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The common grocery store plastic bag or take-out container is both a marvel of chemical engineering and a concern to those who care about the environment.


Mark J. Cardillo

Tobin J. Marks, a professor of chemistry and materials science and engineering at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., is conducting research on how to make these products with concern for the environment.

Or as he says, "To produce products which are cleaner, which don't pollute and the production of which doesn't produce harmful byproducts."

One of his advances is using sugarcane to produce plastics. For his research in the development of recyclable, sustainably produced plastics and for work in the use of unusual metals used in chemical reactions, Mr. Marks was recently awarded the Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences.

The $250,000 award is given biennially by the New York-based Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation.

This year's prize was specifically awarded to a scholar working in the field of catalysis—substances that accelerate the creation of molecules. The process happens in everything from the production of therapeutic drugs to making fuel.

Dr. Marks's research "has had tremendous impact," says Mark J. Cardillo, executive director of the foundation, adding that the research covers "intellectual conceptual advances all the way to major consequences."

For Dr. Marks, the award "helps to highlight how important modern chemical sciences are to the quality of human life," he says.

Camille and Henry Dreyfus were pioneers in synthetic fibers. The brothers worked on the development of cellulose acetate, which is used in the production of film and made into textiles.

"They were part of the founding of the textile industry," says Dr. Cardillo.

Camille Dreyfus died in 1956 and Henry Dreyfus died in 1944. The foundation's purpose is to advance the science of chemistry and chemical engineering.

The Dreyfus Prize is the foundation's largest award, with others given for mentoring and teaching.

But the foundation also seeks to improve the public's general understanding of chemistry. A recent gift to the Museum of Science & Industry in Chicago for an exhibit on chemical reactions, for example, is one such way of making chemistry accessible and interesting to children.

Dr. Cardillo likes to joke that, "in modest terms," chemistry is about "the defense of humanity, the defense against pathogens and mutation, the protection of the environment, the climate and the atmosphere. All of these topics which require technical solutions, there's no avoiding that, have chemistry at the core."

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