Cream of the crop

When U of L chemistry researcher Dr. Paul Hayes sees a cornfield, he looks much deeper than the rows, the stalks or even the kernels.

He envisions matter at the molecular level and sees corn as a source for biodegradable material, such as a plastic drinking cup, rather than just a common vegetable.

In fact, Hayes looks at many common materials and thinks up ways to improve them at the molecular level by making them more useful, energy efficient and, like biodegradable corn-based drinking cups, more environmentally friendly.

His award-winning research focuses on synthetic chemistry, or the making of molecules. More specifically, he prepares new molecules – called catalysts – that are able to convert one chemical into another without themselves being consumed or altered.

Dr. Paul Hayes
Chemistry researcher Dr. Paul Hayes takes his lab to the cornfield.

One of his recent projects focuses on the challenge of making new materials that are both biodegradable and biocompatible.

"We prepare catalysts that convert a chemical found in corn or beets into a plastic-like material called polylactide," explains Hayes. "Polylactide can be made into a wide variety of manufactured goods, such as drinking cups or other biodegradable products. We can either shorten or extend the biodegradable lifespan of the product based on how we fine-tune the molecular structure of the polylactide."

The ability to manipulate these characteristics opens up possibilities for many new and useful materials in the future.

For example, Hayes explains packaging materials can have readily adjusted biodegradation rates to accommodate the need for various shelf lives of different items, providing an alternative "green" plastic for food packaging.

Hayes' research also has medical applications like absorbable sutures, matrices for the slow release of pharmaceuticals and polymer scaffolds for tissue engineering.

Hayes, who has been at the U of L for four years, continues to develop his thriving independent research program, which has produced numerous publications in top-tier journals and received more than $1.4 million in funding from provincial and national agencies, such as the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Canada Foundation for Innovation, Canada School of Energy and Environment and GreenCentre Canada.

As a result of these successes the young researcher has earned province-wide accolades, including the prestigious Alberta Ingenuity New Faculty Award. Most recently, Hayes accepted a Distinguished Academic Early Career Award from the Confederation of Alberta Faculty Associations for his ongoing accomplishments and future research potential.

It's a promising future for all Albertans, really, thanks to leading academics like Hayes, who just happens to be tackling world issues at the molecular level.

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