The College welcomes polymer scientist Brooks Abel

Brooks Abel at the College of Chemistry.

By Marge d’Wylde

We are delighted to introduce Dr. Brooks Abel who joined the College of Chemistry as an assistant professor in the summer of 2021 with a focus in polymer chemistry.

Brooks arrived from a postdoctoral appointment in the lab of Tisch University Professor Geoffrey Coates at Cornell University where he researched the development of catalysts for controlled anionic and cationic ring-opening polymerizations creating new materials capable of repeated chemical recycling to monomers. 

Brooks grew up in McComb, Mississippi which is also the hometown of musical artists Britney Spears and Brandy. During high school he developed an interest in cycling and raced bikes with teams such as the New Orleans Bicycle Club for more than ten years. He attended school through junior college in McComb before heading to the University of Southern Mississippi (USM) where he received his undergraduate degree in chemistry. USM houses one of the three top polymer chemistry programs in the country.

His discovery and love of chemistry happened around the age of 11 when he developed a huge interest in aquariums. Brooks comments, “I didn’t know it at the time, but that’s when I fell in love with chemistry and research. When I got my first fish I thought, ‘Oh yeah, I’m an expert’. I’m 11. I know how to dechlorinate the water. I know everything there is to know about fish.” And then of course, a week later it was dead. And I am thinking to myself, “What the heck happened?”

He continues, “Our library had five books on maintaining aquariums. You could check out books for two weeks. Every two weeks I checked out those five books and read them over and over. I learned about the nitrogen cycle, pH, buffers, and the all-important information you needed to run an aquarium. I loved doing the research. I just wanted my aquarium to be successful. That was my start.”

He started studying at the local junior college and then transferred to USM because initially he did not know what he wanted to major in. He  considered architecture.  However, since there was no architecture track, he began taking math and science classes. Brooks says, “Halfway through junior college I started hearing my friends complain about their chemistry courses, which re-triggered my interest in the subject.” So, he switched to chemistry.

“And then I learned about these things called polymers and that there was a world-renowned polymer program that I had never heard of an hour away from where I grew up. I went on to finish my undergraduate degree and do my graduate studies in polymer chemistry at USM,” Brooks states. While an undergraduate at USM, he and a fellow classmate founded the University of Southern Mississippi’s first and only Collegiate Cycling Team. “We funded the team by working the concession stands at football games and obtaining sponsorships from local businesses. We even ended up on the podium at a few races.”

Brooks received his Ph.D. in 2016 in Polymer Science and Engineering. His doctoral research focused on the development of synthetic approaches toward novel polymer architectures that specifically address the issues of in vivo drug delivery.

During Brooks’ postdoc at Cornell, he began looking more closely at the science of recycling. He states, “The traditional way of recycling where you collect plastic waste, melt it down, and make something else out of it is what we all know as ‘recycling’. But from a chemical perspective the plastics are being ‘down-cycled’ to lower value materials due to polymer degradation and the presence of contaminates like pigments, dyes, stabilizers, etc.”

“During my postdoc at Cornell, we were working on developing a method to control the polymerization of cyclic acetals to make polymer electrolytes for batteries,” Brooks states. “We developed a new synthetic method that allows us to control the polymerization and obtain very high molecular weight materials. What surprised us was that some of the polyacetal derivatives had incredible thermomechanical properties so long as the polymers were of suitably high molecular weight. We had not anticipated these properties when we originally synthesized these materials.”

It turned out that these polymers have properties comparable to polyolefins like polyethylene and polypropylene which cannot be readily depolymerized to monomer. We had synthesized an inexpensive material that could be easily turned back into monomer and then repolymerized to polymer. The polymerization-depolymerization process can effectively be repeated an infinite number of times.

“We started experimenting with the contents of our recycling bins and garbage cans at home.  We used every type of plastic that we could find,” Brooks comments. “We mixed in our polyacetals and found that we were able to isolate pure monomer out of that mixture in near quantitative yield We were then able to repolymerize the recovered cyclic acetal monomer back into polymer.”

Brooks moved this spring into the PMP Tech Lab which was funded in part by a generous gift from Rubber and Joy Chen. Now that he is at Berkeley, Brooks is focused on developing new polymer chemistries to address issues surrounding polymer sustainability. A key objective of his research is to realize new polymerization methods to create polymer materials capable of repeated chemical recycling to monomers. He is interested in both designing and optimizing catalysts for both living and stereoselective polymerizations and developing new techniques for studying catalyst selectivity, activity, and reaction mechanisms. The end goal is to improve the fundamental understanding of organic and polymer chemistry concepts.