The award, $600,000 in funding over four years, supports the nation’s most promising young faculty members in the early stages of their academic careers in the chemical and life sciences, particularly to encourage work that opens up new avenues of research.
Leibfarth and another UNC-Chapel Hill winner, Wesley Legant in the UNC School of Medicine, were among 10 winners to receive the prestigious honor. Legant is in pharmacology, with a joint appointment in the department of biomedical engineering. They were selected from a pool of over 300 applicants by a panel of scientific experts. Carolina is the only university with two Beckman Young Investigators this year.
“Our new 2019 awardees are tackling a broad range of challenges, from production of sustainable plastics and batteries to new rapid genetic screening techniques for cancer therapies to modeling of magnetic quantum materials, among others,” said Anne Hultgren, executive director of the Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation.
The Beckman Young Investigator Award will fund work in Leibfarth’s group focused on developing the next-generation of sustainable plastics. The majority of current plastics are derived from petrochemical resources and persist in the environment long after their useful lifetime. While these materials would ideally be replaced by plastics that are both derived from renewable resources and degrade into environmentally benign byproducts, the majority of current sustainable alternatives do not have the properties to compete with petroleum-derived materials.
Leibfarth seeks to develop a new approach toward the production of sustainable plastics with the potential to dramatically enhance their mechanical properties. His group has recently discovered a new concept that controls the stereochemistry, or the spatial arrangement of plastic building blocks during their production. This approach transforms these materials from viscous liquids into advanced materials that have potential utility as low-cost adhesives, coatings and biomedical devices. Translating this concept to building blocks that are derived from biorenewable substrates such as corn, mint and trees will yield next-generation plastics with a significantly smaller environmental footprint. Additionally, the production of these high-value materials from renewable building blocks will result in plastics that are considerably easier to degrade either chemically or in the environment.
The Arnold and Mabel Beckman Foundation supports researchers and nonprofit research institutions in making the next generation of breakthroughs in chemistry and the life sciences.