NYU-Poly Professor Honored for Bio-Catalysis Research

Richard Gross Outlines Research on Bio-Alternatives to Petroleum in Lectures as Turner Alfrey Visiting Professor

The Michigan Molecular Institute (MMI) awarded its top honor, the 2010 Turner Alfrey Visiting Professor award (TAVP), to Richard Gross, the Herman F. Mark Professor of Polymer Science at Polytechnic Institute of New York University (NYU-Poly).

The institute serves as the intellectual core of a region that includes Dow Chemical and Dow Corning, parts of the world’s second largest chemical company and major patron of MMI, as well as a host of universities and chemical organizations. Gross is the beneficiary of a program that, every year since the institute's founding in 1973, has invited one scientist with an international reputation for research to visit Midland and teach a series of short courses at the institution.

As part of the TAVP program, the honored scientist also gives seminars at Dow Chemical, Dow Corning, central Michigan universities and professional organizations.

"What I communicated at MMI and other visits was a vision of chemistry’s future” says Gross. "The fact is, we are going to shift from petroleum-based to bio-based chemicals — from petroleum refineries to bio refineries. It's a major shift in chemistry, with important new technologies that still need to be developed."

Gross has worked at the nexus of biochemistry, polymers and catalysis for some 22 years, garnering more than 360 publications in peer-reviewed journals, 19 patents and the 2003 Presidential Green Chemistry Award. He is the 36th TAVP.

The appointment puts Gross in the company of such past honorees as Piero Pino of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, Nirio Ise of Kyoto University, Gerhard Wegner of the Max-Planck Institut, Robert Prud'homme of Princeton and Nobel Prize winner Pierre de Gennes of the College de France, Paris. All are stars in the polymer field.

The award is a testament to the importance of Gross’s work using enzymes — proteins like lipase and protease that vastly accelerate chemical reactions instead of more energy-intensive and less efficient chemically catalyzed polymerizations.

But Gross has also used bio-catalysis to pioneer new compounds like biobased ω-hydroxy fatty acid monomers and their polymers assembled from organic (triglyceride) feedstocks instead of petroleum. Gross’s lab has also produced polyol-polyesters via lipase-catalysis, which can be used in polyurethane foams and coatings, replacing the need for petroleum.  Polyesters synthesized via the same route produce plastics that mimic polyethylene.

The list of Gross’s bio-alternatives to petroleum goes on, with functional monomers, new and previously unavailable families of multiblock copolymers, bioresorbable, and biocompatible implant materials for medicine from polyol-polyesters derived from glycerol or sorbitol.

In the course of his work, Gross has applied for or been granted 19 patents, and early this year SyntheZyme LLC, Gross’s joint venture with NYU-Poly, was awarded a Phase I research grant for $150,000 from the National Science Foundation to develop bio-pesticides based on the company’s proprietary yeast enzyme technology.

Gross says his message to scientists at MMI was that biocatalysis offers the potential for developing a vast range of new materials. "Most of these scientists hold positions that leave them little time to look outwards. That was my job: To open their minds to an area that's pretty fresh. I went there to provide these scientists with insights into how they can use biocatalysis in place of chemical methods to develop new products and more efficient process. I also worked with them on understanding that the best results can come from the combination of biocatalytic and chemical steps."

The lectures covered subjects such as fundamentals in biocatalysis using lipase, protease and many other enzymes; the means by which enzyme catalysis transforms plant cellulose, lignin, and other cell wall components to chemicals; a rundown of bio-based monomers and plastics including innovations like poly(hydroxyalkanoates) and poly(lactic acid); immobilized or cell-free enzyme-catalyzed polymerization reactions; microbial surfactants and enzyme-catalyzed routes to control material properties.

As a consequence the trip, Gross signed an agreement with an MMI-associated startup, DendriTech, which manufactures dendrimers, a branch polymer with many uses in medicine. "It's a very special kind of chemical, so we are working together to try create hybrid dendrimers that are part bio- and part petroleum-based," says Gross. "They are perfect cylindrical molecules that have great functionality. People thought that they could never be scaled up without huge expense, but this company is the first to do so and to bring production prices down on a pretty exquisite molecule."

The TAVP award "benefits many people," MMI Senior Research Scientist and Program Manager Steve Keinath said in a statement. Keinath, who is also course registrar, said the TAVP connects local scientists and engineers with leaders in polymer science, "offering a chance for true face-to-face give-and-take with some of the brightest minds working today."

About Polytechnic Institute of New York University

Polytechnic Institute of New York University (formerly Polytechnic University), an affiliate of New York University, is a comprehensive school of engineering, applied sciences, technology and research, and is rooted in a 156-year tradition of invention, innovation and entrepreneurship: i2e. The institution, founded in 1854, is the nation’s second-oldest private engineering school. In addition to its main campus in New York City at MetroTech Center in downtown Brooklyn, it also offers programs at sites throughout the region and around the globe. Globally, NYU-Poly has programs in Israel, China and is an integral part of NYU's campus in Abu Dhabi.