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Creating Smart Polymers
March 27, 2013   
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Prof. Krzysztof Matyjaszewski talks to Tomasz Rybicki.

How is your atom-transfer radical-polymerization (ATRP) method different from those used before? Can you give an example of something that was impossible before but has now become possible thanks to your method?

Almost half of all polymers in the world are produced by radical polymerization. Most of these polymerizations are difficult to control because the growth of the macromolecular chain lasts no longer than a second. In such a short time, one cannot synthesize well-defined polymers.

What is the ATRP method based on then?

In simple terms, on using such catalysts that will slow down the growth of the polymer chain and extend its lifetime to a few hours. During the slowed growth, it is possible, for instance, to add monomers, block the growth of some of them, and introduce many new functional molecules to the chain. It is also possible to construct chains with architectures resembling stars, hair combs, brushes for cleaning bottles, etc.

In what industries is your method used?

Every year in chemistry, thousands of new compounds are synthesized and hundreds of new methods are developed. However, not many of them are universal and robust enough to be used under various conditions and for various needs. Thus, it rarely happens that the time between the discovery and implementation in industry is shorter than 10 years. When it comes to the ATRP method, we signed our first license agreements after four years, and industrial production began after eight years. This is mainly due to the chemists from the U.S. corporations such as PPG and Dionex or Japanese companies such as Mitsubishi and Kaneka rather than me or my team at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Many of the researchers in these companies are my former postdoctoral fellows or graduate students. In all, over the last 10 years, more than 200 people have worked in my laboratories. To date, we’ve signed 14 license agreements, and 50 companies have been members of the Consortium at Carnegie Mellon.

What potential ATRP technology improvements is your team working on? What new opportunities will your method offer after it is upgraded?

About 30 new papers on the ATRP appear every week, and we don’t know where the limits are in terms of how widely the method can be applied. We should soon be able to construct smart macromolecules capable of reversibly shrinking or expanding like a muscle under the influence of temperature, changes in the pH value, light or an electrical impulse. We are also working on synthesizing polymers that could be used for a specific delivery of drugs and nucleic acids, as well as polymers capable of conducting electricity and serving as computer transistors, in addition to polymers with magnetic memory, etc. We work with the best research teams in the U.S., Japan and Europe. There are many Poles on those teams, for instance Prof. Tomasz Kowalewski from Carnegie Mellon, Prof. Mieczysław Jaroniec from Kent State University, Prof. Bogdan Marciniec and Prof. Stefan Jurga from the Adam Mickiewicz University in Poznań, Prof. Jacek Ulański from the Technical University of ŁódĽ, as well as several colleagues from the Center of Molecular and Macromolecular Sciences at the Polish Academy of Sciences—including professors Stanisław Penczek, Stanisław Słomkowski, Ryszard Szymański and Andrzej Duda.

Could you share with us some of your ideas for new developments in chemistry?

Chemistry makes it possible to control materials at the tiniest, atomic, level producing various nanostructured materials. At the moment, it is developing in several key directions, which include advanced materials chemistry, environmental chemistry, and biomaterials chemistry. We are trying to take an active part in all these developments while using polymers generated with the ATRP method.


Krzysztof Matyjaszewski was born in 1950 in Konstantynów Łódzki in central Poland. He began his master’s studies at the Faculty of Chemistry at the Technical University of ŁódĽ, but then went on a scholarship to the Moscow Institute of the Petrochemical and Gas Industry, where he graduated in 1972.

After he returned to Poland, Matyjaszewski started to work at the Center of Molecular and Macromolecular Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences, where in 1976 he received his Ph.D. and went on a year-long postdoctoral fellowship to the University of Florida. On his return, he worked as an assistant professor at the Center of Molecular and Macromolecular Studies under Prof. Stanisław Penczek.

In 1984-1985, Matyjaszewski spent time at the French National Center for Scientific Research (CNRS) in Paris, and as a visiting professor at the University of Paris. He then moved to Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh to work as an assistant professor and associate professor; and since 1998 as a full professor.

In 1994-1998, Matyjaszewski served as head of the Department of Chemistry at Carnegie Mellon University. In 1998, he established the Center for Macromolecular Engineering at Carnegie Mellon University. Since 1995, he has been director of the Atom Transfer Radical Polymerization Consortium and subsequently the Controlled Radical Polymerization Consortium. This organization is actively engaged in developing new ATRP-related techniques and materials and in transferring the generated knowledge to industry.

In 1998, Matyjaszewski received the title of J. C. Warner Professor of Natural Sciences, which he took over from Nobel Prize winner John Pople. In 2004, Matyjaszewski received Carnegie Mellon University’s most prestigious title—that of University Professor.

Matyjaszewski has co-authored 17 books, more than 80 book chapters, over 700 peer-reviewed research papers, 46 U.S. patents and over 130 international patents. Over the past 10 years, Matyjaszewski’s publications have been cited over 50,000 times. His first paper on ATRP, which was published in 1995 in The Journal of the American Chemical Society, has been cited more than 3,000 times to date and his first review on ATRP nearly 4,000 times.
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