UNC professor focuses on inventing the future

Materials scientist, educator, entrepreneur Joseph DeSimone gives a TED Talk, “What if 3D printing was 100x faster?”
Materials scientist, educator, entrepreneur Joseph DeSimone gives a TED Talk, “What if 3D printing was 100x faster?”

There aren’t many things that can stop Joseph DeSimone in his tracks.

Snowzilla just happened to be one of them.

The materials scientist with a penchant for “looking at nothing and seeing something,” was on the tarmac in Washington in late January when he learned his meeting with President Barack Obama was postponed due to the Blizzard of 2016.

“It’s going to be rescheduled in May, and we are pretty excited,” said DeSimone. “Especially with this president, it’s a great honor.”

This, from a man who is already Chancellor’s Eminent Professor of Chemistry at the UNC Chapel Hill and the William R. Kenan Jr. Distinguished Professor of Chemical Engineering at N.C. State and the Kenan Professor of Chemistry at UNC.

The presidential citation he will receive is the National Medal of Technology and Innovation – the nation’s highest award in advancing the field of technology and making lasting contributions to America’s competitiveness and quality of life.

Currently spending much of his time in the San Francisco area, DeSimone – who has well over 100 patents to his credit – is developing a new company, Carbon3D, which aims to take 3D printing to a new and more productive level.

Personal learning curve

He traces his passion for science back to childhood and a memorable bout of sibling rivalry.

“I certainly love science,” DeSimone said. “It’s funny – I ended up getting the microscope as a kid, which is more on the biology side, and my sister got the chemistry set. I complained because I wanted what she got better than what I got.”

Good thing he didn’t fight her for it. Today, Laura DeSimone is a physicist who works for the U.S. secretary of defense and is considered the Department of the Navy’s chief authority on all weaponry and explosive devices “afloat and ashore,” according to her professional biography.

Joe DeSimone discovered another passion in high school, when he found himself taking over class for a day after a young science teacher struggled to explain the concept of pH, a measure of acidity based on a balance of free hydrogen and hydroxyl ions. The freshman went home, opened an encyclopedia and learned everything he could about pH. The following day, DeSimone recalls, “I ended up teaching the whole class and him about pH. Then it dawned on me it was fun. I enjoyed it. And I was good at it.”

“I’m good at describing to people what we plan to be doing, how there can be a new ways to think about things, and how things can be better,” DeSimone said. “Especially how we can improve the human condition.”

DeSimone grew up in Pennsylvania and moved to North Carolina in 1990 to become an assistant professor of chemistry at UNC Chapel Hill. While working on a research project with the chemical company DuPont, he discovered a way to create protective nonstick coatings such as Teflon, known as flouropolymers, using carbon dioxide as a solvent. The process minimized the release of potentially harmful perfluorooctanoic acid into the environment.

“I thought it would be a better process using carbon dioxide as a solvent, and it was a great example that the better process can also be a greener process,” DeSimone said. “And the better the performance financially, the more likely it is that people will pay a premium for it.”

Oh, and there’s one other necessary ingredient, he adds: flexibility.

DeSimone said companies heavily entrenched in certain methods of working or production are not as likely to encourage innovation. While the carbon dioxide-based solvent was an award-winning discovery, it didn’t get applied as widely as he hoped.

Lesson learned.

On campuses, he has bashed through barriers when important work needed to be done.

One collaboration bore fruit after an acquaintance at Duke University Medical School spoke to DeSimone of his concern about the metal stents used in balloon angioplasty to open up blocked arteries. After cardiologists successfully placed the stents needed to shore up collapsed or occluded arteries, it wasn’t possible to take them out, and that sometimes caused problems.

Working with Richard Stack, now professor emeritus in cardiology at Duke Medical Center, DeSimone created a stent that would hold the blood vessel open for several months, while the troublesome artery healed, and then dissolve inside the body.

It’s just one of the ways the eminent scientist has materially improved people’s lives.

Still the teacher

DeSimone’s latest venture, Carbon3D, is developing 3D printing techniques in Silicon Valley that will allow manufacturers not just to make templates using 3D printing, but actual working parts.

With this level of entrepreneurial excitement and an arrangement with the University of North Carolina to extend his California-centric sabbatical for a third year, it might seem that DeSimone has left his love of teaching behind. But that’s not really the case.

“I had a group of my students in today,” he said in late February. “They flew in to California last night, and we had breakfast this morning. They will be trained in how to use some of the new printers this week, and we will be shipping the prototypes to North Carolina soon. One is training to be an analytical chemist, others are material scientists or bio-engineers.”

As DeSimone sees it, he is giving his students more than just a solid education based in knowledge and research.

“They’re also learning what it means to start companies, about entrepreneurship and how to create something from nothing,” he said. “My ultimate product is those students.”

Renee Elder