Talented Twelve

Earlier this semester, Carolina Chemistry's Frank Leibfarth was selected as a 2019 Chemical & Engineering News's "Talented Twelve." His recognition took place at the American Chemical Society's meeting in San Diego.

As the kicker on the University of South Dakota's football team, Frank Leibfarth had moments when he stepped onto the field knowing that his single kick would determine whether his team won or lost. "Before you can ever make a game-winning field goal, you have to know you can handle missing one," Leibfarth says. "You can't be scared to fail when you walk out there."

People who have worked with Leibfarth say that experience has served him well. "He embodies one of the traits that I consider most important in research—fearlessness," says the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's Timothy Jamison, Leibfarth's postdoctoral mentor. "Combined with his record of accomplishment, scholarship, creativity, and ambition, Frank's desire to step outside his comfort zone made me confident that he would be an exceptional independent scientist, one who will lead a vibrant and leading research program. I am delighted to see that this prediction has already materialized."

Earlier this year, Leibfarth, a chemistry professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, scored big with an advance in polymers—the field in which he did his doctoral work with Craig Hawker at the University of California, Santa Barbara. Leibfarth figured out a way to tweak the synthesis of a family of polymers so that the stereochemical arrangement of its side chains was controlled rather than random.

With the random side-chain arrangement, the polymers—poly(vinyl ethers)—were viscous liquids with niche applications as adhesives. Creating the polymers with stereocenters that are all the same (or isotactic, as polymer chemists say) made them solid with properties akin to, and in some respects better than, those of commercial polyolefins. For an idea of the potential impact, consider that each year more than 100 million metric tons of polyolefins are produced, according to the PlasticsEurope Market Research Group, to make things like toys, tennis racket strings, and food packaging.

Figuring out how to make poly(vinyl ethers) isotactically has been a long-standing problem for polymer chemists. That's because the oxygen atoms in vinyl ether monomers poison the catalysts that are used to make isotactic polyolefins. Leibfarth's insight was to use chiral anion catalysis, an approach that's more commonly used to make small molecules.

It wasn't always clear that Leibfarth's calling was in chemistry. He decided not to pursue biology after he spent a summer extracting DNA from dead fleas. The following summer he worked in Colin Nuckolls's lab at Columbia University as part of the National Science Foundation's Research Experiences for Undergraduates program.

"That experience changed my life," Leibfarth says. It was his first chance to do cutting-edge research. "Being an athlete, I'm driven by competition," he explains. "The idea that I could have that outlet within science was really exciting."

Keeping the long game in mind, Leibfarth wants to build polymers that are easier to break down. "The largest impact will come from how we make these things," he says, "because once they're made, they don't really go away."

Article and image used with permission from Chemical & Engineering News