I'm interested in trying to correlate how the structure of a material is related to its properties and how we can take that knowledge to design new materials.

Brandon Vogel

What do penicillin, electricity, X-rays and rubber have in common? Like Brandon Vogel's discovery of microwave synthesis of degradable polymers, they were all fortuitous discoveries made by a keen observer.

As a graduate student, Vogel was often rushing to get back to the job and found himself eating more than his fair share of microwavable cuisine. His work synthesizing degradable polymers – plastics that break down under certain conditions – required constant attention and it often took weeks just to make the materials he was studying. So one Friday evening, inspired by how quickly his food was heating, Vogel popped the ingredients in the microwave.

"Within five minutes I had made polymer," Vogel said.

Why the microwave works better than other methods of heating is a subject of debate in the field, but as an assistant professor of chemical engineering, Vogel is using the technique to synthesize and study new polymers for medical applications.

"I'm interested in trying to correlate how the structure of a material is related to its properties and how we can take that knowledge to design new materials," Vogel said. "If this method can be applied to quickly synthesize a wide range of degradable polymers with specific properties, we can potentially impact the field in a major way."

Potential applications range from polymer coatings to allow drugs to slowly release in the body over time – enabling a person with diabetes, for instance, to inject insulin only once a month or even once a year – to creating nano particles that will aid in the visualization of tumors.

Posted Sept. 22, 2008

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