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Faculty Receives TURI Grants to Research Green Materials

Projects Attract Additional Funding

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From left, graduate students Maria Francis Palacios and Bin Tan are working on the TURI grant project lead by Asst. Prof. Meg Sobkowicz-Kline of Plastics Engineering.

12/22/2014
By Karen Angelo

The Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) recently awarded nearly $62,000 in grants to Assoc. Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan and Asst. Prof. Meg Sobkowicz-Kline of Plastics Engineering and Assoc. Prof. Zhiyong Gu of Chemical Engineering. The TURI Academic Grant program funds research that helps faculty and partner companies find safer alternatives to toxic chemicals. 

While the amounts of the grants are small, the impact is anything but. 

Over the years, project results have generated data researchers need to attract larger funding from organizations such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Science Foundation and U.S. Army Natick Labs. 

“The TURI seed grants are absolutely critical for transforming new ideas in toxics use reduction into practical solutions and ultimately greener and more sustainable products,” says Assoc. Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan of Plastics Engineering, who has received funding from U.S. Army Natick Labs after generating preliminary data from a TURI grant. 

Nagarajan’s research team is investigating safer plastics using food grade feed stocks as a replacement for hazardous substances including formaldehyde and phenol. 

Gu is developing a new type of lead-free nanosolder paste that has the potential to be used in the next-generation electronics assembly and manufacturing of computers, cell phones, automobiles, satellites and medical devices. 

“The lead-free nanosolder material will reduce the toxic lead getting into the electronic waste and ecological cycle,” says Gu. “The nanosolder-enabled electronic manufacturing processes will be more energy efficient with less material usage, and will be, therefore, more sustainable in the long term.” 

Gu has also attracted more funding as a result of a previous TURI grant. He and an interdisciplinary team received $460K from the National Science Foundation to develop lead-free soldering for the microelectronics and semiconductor industry in 2012. His research team received an EPA People, Prosperity and Planet Phase 1 grant award last year for its research, and will be participating in the competition for Phase 2 funding in Washington, DC in May 2015. 

Sobkowicz-Kline is investigating new synthesis mechanisms to create versatile latex coatings from renewable resources without using toxic solvents. The resulting coatings could be an innovative solution to paper coating applications that currently rely on the use of highly toxic formaldehyde-based resins. 

“We are working with coatings manufacturer Worthen Industries to develop bio-based and biodegradable alternatives to styrene latex that can be found in a range of coatings from paper to wall paint,” says Sobkowicz-Kline. “This could help Massachusetts manufacturers eliminate organic solvents and toxic monomers from their formulations.” 

Since its inception more than 20 years ago, the TURI Academic Grant program has awarded more than $1.5M in funding, supporting more than 105 graduate and doctoral level students. 

“Because the grant requires that researchers collaborate with Massachusetts manufacturers to find technically feasible safer materials and chemicals, the grant program delivers real-world solutions that promote worker and environmental health,” says Pam Eliason, industry research program manager for TURI. 

To further foster collaboration among UMass Lowell researchers and Massachusetts companies, TURI is hosting the Greener Materials Research Symposium on May 19 at University Crossing. Faculty will present their project results and Massachusetts industry partners will discuss their research needs and challenges.