Tobin Marks Discovers Catalysts to Create Sustainably Produced Plastics

While Benjamin Braddock may not have heeded the advice of his father’s friend in the 1967 movie “The Graduate” about the great future in plastics, Tobin Marks, B.S. ’66, chemistry, has helped create that future for the industry.

Green Technology Solutions

Marks, the Vladimir N. Ipatieff Professor of Catalytic Chemistry and Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, is a world leader in developing new catalysts to help create recyclable, environmentally friendly, and sustainably produced plastics and elastomeric materials. Catalysts accelerate the creation of molecules or materials without being consumed and have wide-ranging applications, including the activation of enzymes in biology, the synthesis of therapeutic drugs and the large-scale production of coatings, fertilizers and plastics.

Marks’s research has helped scientists understand the requirements to make and break specific chemical bonds and design new catalytic processes that have led directly to multi-billion dollar industrial innovations. He also has demonstrated how metals from unusual parts of the periodic table, such as rare earth elements, can be used as efficient catalysts with fewer undesired by-products. His work has resulted in enormous savings in energy and scarce resources and will play a major role in new technologies such as solar cells made from plastic and printing processes to make transistors and other electronic devices.

“The coming decades will present mankind with technical challenges threatening our quality of life,” says Marks. “I believe that chemistry offers defining concepts and tools, and hence limitless opportunities, to better human life in many ways.”

The 2011 Dreyfus Prize in the Chemical Sciences winner was honored for developing new industrial catalysts and broadening the understanding of their chemical structures and how they work. The $250,000 award, given by the Camille and Henry Dreyfus Foundation, recognizes exceptional and original research in a selected area of chemistry that has advanced the field in major ways.

Marks received his Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has been on the Northwestern faculty since 1970, and his research accomplishments have been recognized worldwide, including the U.S. National Medal of Science and election to the National Academy of Sciences, membership in the National Academy of Engineering, and numerous awards from the American Chemical Society and many international organizations. He is on the editorial boards of nine major journals; consultant or advisor for six major corporations and start-ups; and has published 1,075 research articles and holds 215 U.S. patents. Marks is also a member of the University of Maryland Alumni Association Hall of Fame.

A Transformative Experience

“When I attended summer orientation my freshman year, it was the first time I stepped foot on a college campus,” remembers Marks, who is a first-generation college graduate. Marks lived on campus in Damascus Hall, a converted Army barracks, for one year before commuting to the university for the remaining three years. “I remember driving through blizzards on University Boulevard going back and forth from school,” recalls Marks. “I made many friends at College Park, it was an enjoyable time.”

He also remembers working his way through school starting at the university’s Poultry Research Center on campus. “I fed chickens on Sunday afternoons,” recounts Marks. “My job in the chemistry department was much more enjoyable.”

Through the years, Marks has tracked down a few classmates and kept up with departmental updates on alumni. “I have looked at yearbooks online, and it is good to see the campus evolving,” he notes.

As a college professor, he now understands, “A good undergraduate education is transformative, you are such a different person when you leave the institution. I did not truly appreciate the transformative experience I had at Maryland.”

He judges his career success by “how many students I have helped and how my discoveries have made the world a better place. There is a real satisfaction in seeing your students grow and succeed, but my first passion is discovering new and useful things.”

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 8,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and six interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $250 million.