2 Minutes with Mark MacLachlan
June 4, 2012
The frenetic pace of the global economy and demand for innovative technology has heightened the demand for materials that are stronger, lighter and more flexible or have unique properties. Few working in the field are more imaginative or innovative than The University of British Columbia's Mark MacLachlan, whose research breakthroughs have produced truly novel materials.
Dr. MacLachlan explores the potential for invention through supramolecular chemistry—a discipline that takes advantage of the fact that molecules with specific shapes and properties will self-assemble to form new materials. His achievements have earned him a 2012 E.W.R. Steacie Memorial Fellowship from NSERC.
We work in supramolecular materials. What we try to do is to take simple building blocks—molecules and ions—and make them assemble into new, useful materials.
I think our most significant discovery is the use of cellulose, now crystalline cellulose, as a template for building new materials. So a couple of years ago we were approached by a non-profit organization, FP Innovations, which is trying to develop new materials from forests. And one of the materials that they have pioneered is called nanocrystalline cellulose. And this is a material that's obtained just from pulp and paper. So if you treat pulp and paper under the right conditions, you can isolate these small nanocrystals of cellulose. And they have a unique property—they organize into a helical assembly in water. And we've been using that as a template to build new solid-state materials.
So what we found was that, by using nanocrystalline cellulose and combining that with a glass precursor, that we could transfer this structure, this helical structure of the cellulose into a porous glass. And this has allowed us to make some really unique glasses that have structures that mimic the iridescent shells of beetles. And because of this unique structure, these materials have photonic properties. They reflect specific wavelengths of light, which we can tune all the way from the infrared to the ultraviolet.
So one application we're looking at is coating building windows with these materials to reduce the amount of heating that occurs inside of the building, and, therefore, ultimately to reduce the amount of air conditioning that's required in the building to keep it cool.
I've had several strong partnerships with different companies in Vancouver and in Canada, which have been funded by NSERC Strategic Projects grants and also Collaborative Research and Development Grants, (CRD). NSERC funding has been essential to our research program. It's funded not only students but also all of our fundamental science, and it's allowed us to develop new interactions with industry from which we've really benefited.