Douglas Fox always knew what he wanted to do when he grew up. It was just a matter of figuring out how to do it. “I’ve always liked the environment and had in the back of my mind how I could eventually apply my work to helping improve it,” says the Department of Chemistry professor.
These days, the link between his work and environmental protection is clear. His research involves the development and use of green alternatives to traditional solvents and flame retardants.
How Green Solvents Work
Much of Fox’s work focuses on green solvents—alternative solvents that, because of their chemical composition, are more environmentally friendly than the solvents traditionally used in industrial settings. He is particularly interested in a group of green solvents called room temperature ionic liquids. Their untraceable emissions and very low flammability have made these solvents a popular research subject over the past ten years, as has the ease with which chemists can manipulate them. Fox explains, “There are hundreds of billions of possible compounds, so there’s a lot of interest in researching them. They’re a hot topic now.”
While ionic liquid solvents are in very limited use today because they are expensive, these costs are expected to decline. “In the meantime,” says Fox, “it’s important to characterize their behavior so that once costs come down, companies will be able to implement their use more quickly.”
In addition to ionic liquid solvents, Fox is exploring the use of other green solvents, including those made of the naturally-derived compounds alpha-Pinene and d-Limonene. These natural solvents have been used for years in products such as Pine-Sol and CitruSolve, and their biodegradability and decreased toxicity make them another environmentally-attractive alternative to traditional solvents. He is also studying ways that chemically modified organic cellulose polymers can be used as a flame retardant.
Polymer Research Receives National Recognition
Fox is also conducting research on how altering plastic composition can improve its flame-resistance, strength, and barrier properties. These modified cellulose polymers have the potential to be used as an environmentally-safe flame retardant.
Last fall, Fox received a three-year grant totaling over $270,000 to pursue this research. Awarded by the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), the grant will fund two new research positions for its duration: a post-doctoral research associate and an undergraduate summer research assistant.
The majority of the project’s research will be conducted at NIST headquarters in Gaithersburg, Maryland—allowing summer research assistants the opportunity to work with state of the art equipment while brushing shoulders with some of the nation’s premier scientists. Student researchers will also gain valuable experience working in materials science, a burgeoning field that applies fundamental understanding of material composition to the engineering of new materials.