By Steve Hamm
When scientists succeed at IBM Research, they tend to stay. Robert Dennard, the inventor of the DRAM, for instance, had been at IBM for 56 years when he retired earlier this year. But there are researchers at the opposite end of the seniority spectrum who are already making their marks—on IBM and the world.
One of them is Jeannette “Jamie” Garcia, a 31-year-old chemist who became a full-time employee at IBM Research just last November—after a one-year stint as a post-doctoral fellow. Jamie has done something quite remarkable: she spearheaded the invention of a new class of materials, which have the potential to shake up the aerospace, auto and semiconductor industries.
Jamie’s team at IBM Research – Almaden, which is led by chemistry pioneer James Hedrick, completed the work on the new class of polymers. Their advances were made public for the first time in an article published today in Science magazine.
Polymers are one of the indispensible facts of modern life. In the form of plastics, they’re essential elements in items ranging from clothing (polyester), to food packaging (polystyrene) to major components of cars and aircraft (polymide). Innovation exploded in the 1950s and ‘60s, (There’s a famous scene in the classic 1967 movie, The Graduate, in which an aimless college graduate gets a single word of advice from an elder: “Plastics.”) However, in the past several decades, scientific advances had slowed to a trickle.
Now IBM scientists are using computation chemistry to accelerate the discovery process. They combine lab experimentation with the use of high-performance computing to model new polymer forming reactions. “We’re now able to predict how molecules will respond to chemical reactions,” says James, who is best known for his work in creating plastics that can be recycled for many uses.
The team developed two related polymers, one, poly(hexahydrotriazine), or PHT, and the other, Poly(hemiaminal), or PHA. They have features that could make them useful in manufacturing materials, consumer goods or even pharmaceuticals.
Jamie’s aha! moment took place in the chemistry lab. In a happy accident, she left a reagent out of a mix of chemicals she was preparing. When she applied heat to the beaker, the milky material hardened into a chunk with her stir bar stuck in it. She tried to grind it with a mortar and pestle. When that didn’t work, she hit it with a hammer. The chunk seemed to be indestructible. “I was excited. This was totally unexpected,” she says. “New polymer forming reactions that make new materials don’t come along every day.”
She had created a new material—but she just didn’t know what it was yet. With help from James and the team, she used a combination of techniques, including quantum mechanical computer modeling, to identify the material. Through further experiments and calculations, they discovered that they had a substance that’s strong, light, resistant to solvent and environmental stress cracking, and recyclable into its original form. It could be used in composite materials in autos and aircraft, and in semiconductor manufacturing.
A second polymer, which also emerged out of Jamie’s experiments, is a gooey material that’s closely related to the hard one. In addition to being light and recyclable, it’s elastic. If you coat two surfaces with the material and stick them together it forms an incredibly strong bond. It could be used as an adhesive, in paint, in fingernail polish and even as an agent for slow-release of drugs.
Jamie grew up in a neighborhood of Seattle—the classic curious kid. Even before she could read, she wondered what made things work. “I wanted to know what was inside them, what they were,” she says. Her father, a community college math teacher, and, mother, a risk manager for a healthcare provider, encouraged her to explore and experiment. They didn’t make much of a fuss when she took apart everything from TV remote controls to household decorations.
She focused on organic chemistry in undergraduate school and got her PhD. in organo catalysis—small-molecule bonding—at Boston College. She was attracted to IBM Research by James Hedrick’s work on fully-recyclable plastics. “The environmental issues are very important to me. It’s something you could work on your entire career, to make things more sustainable,” she says.
Jamie is off to a fast start at IBM. If she sticks to it for as long as Bob Dennard did, you can expect to see many more innovations coming from her—and, perhaps, some major contributions to saving the planet.