What comes after plastic?

Science, Graduate Studies

- Erin King

Innovation at the elemental scale could help us move beyond oil-based polymers

You might not see the results of his research on store shelves in the next few years, but PhD graduate Saurabh Chitnis is helping to change the very makeup of the world around us.

Chitnis is a fundamental chemist working on developing new chemical compounds.

For the past 100 years, popular chemistry has focused on one element of the periodic table: carbon. Combining with one or two other elements, carbon makes organic compounds that then combine in long chains to make a polymer—the basic makeup of plastics. These carbon-based polymers are in virtually everything we use on a daily basis from eyeglasses to clothing to cell phones.

“With the typically slow decomposition rate of plastics, and their components being derived from fossil fuels, the world’s reliance on these polymers has become an environmental concern,” says Chitnis. “There is a real need to find viable alternatives.” 

Chitnis’s work explores some of the other 113 elements of the periodic table. He studies the unique characteristics of elements, how they work together, and what bonds them into new forms.  

“Think of creating synthetic material like building a structure out of Lego,” he says. “We have all the Lego pieces (the elements in the periodic table), but we don’t know what shape they are or how they fit together.” 

Research like this is at such a high level, so removed from immediate societal impact, that it can be difficult to see the benefit. However, without chemists like Chitnis focusing on carbon 100 years ago, our world would look very different indeed. “An often uncounted outcome of scientific research is the production of qualified personnel,” he says. “To sustain an innovative economy someone has to produce knowledge. That’s what I’m doing. Future chemists can take the principles we’re discovering to create the next synthetic material.”

Chitnis’s research has garnered an impressive amount of accolades. In 2011, he was awarded an NSERC Canada Graduate Scholarship, and he was named a Vanier scholar the following year. He also published a dozen articles in prominent chemistry journals during his PhD, with another three in the works now.

Chitnis says one of the things that drew him to UVic is the institution’s reputation for involving undergraduates in research. “In the four universities at which I’ve studied, UVic seems to take undergraduate research the most seriously. Not only have undergraduates contributed directly to my research, but their participation also gave me an opportunity to supervise research.”

Chemistry chair Neil Burford also drew Chitnis to UVic. “I was a member of Neil’s lab at Dalhousie University.  When Neil moved to Victoria in 2011, I came with him,” says Chitnis. “Neil is internationally renowned as a leader in inorganic chemistry and currently the president-elect of the Canadian Society of Chemistry. He believes in letting students freely design and evolve their research projects based on their intellectual curiosity, allowing them to develop as independent thinkers. It’s no surprise that many of his previous students are now professors and researchers around the world.”

With his PhD now complete, Chitnis embarks on a new chapter as a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Bristol. For the next two years he’ll study catalysis—an industrial process already used to produce plastics by efficiently bonding carbon with other elements. He’ll work to develop a new methodology to efficiently create bonds between inorganic elements.

What really excites Chitnis about this area of research are the endless possibilities. “So much is still unknown about chemical compounds. The imagination lags behind what nature can ultimately reveal to us,” he says.


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Keywords: sustainability, environment, convocation, student life, chemistry, graduate research, alumni

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