Expanding the world of polymers

Today’s tires and tomorrow’s fuel-cell-powered engines depend upon basic polymer science that allows multi-component materials to exhibit the most desired attributes of each ingredient, needs that have been advanced by James McGrath’s research.

Polymers are tiny molecules strung in long, repeating chains. Polymers are basically everywhere: the proteins and starches in food, the tires on our cars, and the DNA in our bodies. Polymer chemistry, also known as macromolecular chemistry, is a multidisciplinary field that deals with the chemical synthesis and properties of polymers.


University Distinguished Professor and Ethyl Chair in Chemistry, James McGrath, has made research contributions to the fields of high-performance and high-temperature polymers. University Distinguished Professor and Ethyl Chair in Chemistry, James McGrath, has made research contributions to the fields of high-performance and high-temperature polymers.

McGrath, who is a University Distinguished Professor and Ethyl Chair in chemistry in the College of Science, has been with Virginia Tech for almost 35 years. He started as an assistant professor in 1975 and was named full professor five years later. He was instrumental in starting the undergraduate and graduate polymer chemistry courses at the university and was appointed director of the Materials Institute in 1987. He directed one of the first National Science Foundation Science and Technology Centers for High Performance Polymer Adhesives and Composites from 1989 to 2000, and he is currently co-director of the university’s Macromolecules and Interfaces Institute.

Understanding the chemistry of polymers helps us use them wisely. Over the years, McGrath has become a leader in determining the chemistry required to maintain the integrity and qualities of polymer material while preserving the desired properties of each component, all with processing ease, economy, and recyclability.

“It is difficult to overestimate the contributions Jim has made to polymer science,” said Benny Freeman, Kenneth A. Kobe Professor in Chemical Engineering at the University of Texas at Austin, and frequent research partner. “He enjoys unmatched enthusiasm and passion for his work and is a world authority in the area of polymer science.”

Predicting and improving the future

McGrath has made research contributions to the area of high-performance and high-temperature polymers. His research group was among the first to recognize and demonstrate a significant improvement in fracture toughness of chemically modified thermosets for structural adhesives and aerospace carbon fiber composites.

In recent years, McGrath’s primary research interests have been in polymeric membranes for fuel cells and reverse osmosis water purification methods. Within and around cells, materials are constantly being shipped one way or another across membranes. McGrath has developed proton exchange membranes for fuel cells with the potential for replacing the internal combustion engine over time as well as allowing for a higher power density in mobile devices such as cell phones and portable laptops. In one of his most recent areas of research, McGrath has been working with the diffusing of water, a process known as osmosis. Water will diffuse across membranes in order to minimize the difference in concentration.


Fuel cell diagram This diagram illustrates the innovative fuel cell structure developed by James McGrath and his colleagues. A fuel cell is comprised of two electrodes sandwiched around an electrolyte. Oxygen passes over one electrode; hydrogen over the other, generating electricity, water and heat.

“Chlorine compounds are used to disinfect 88 percent of the world’s water and the current state-of-the-art mechanisms are degrading rapidly,” McGrath said. “Throughout my career, I have sought out areas of fundamental polymer research opportunities that I thought would be most applicable,” McGrath said. “I’ve tried to predict where society’s interests and needs would be and developed new materials applications accordingly.”

Surprises along the way

When asked about the most surprising thing in his career, McGrath replied, “the response to our work; I never would have expected it.”

His focus on fuel cells began in the late 1990s.

“It was a ripe area for investigating the membranes that go into fuel cell devices,” he said. “We realized that there were more things you could do with fuel cell membranes than fuel cells, so our research took off in several different directions rather unexpectedly.”

These areas include water purification membranes and gas separation membranes such as air and natural gas. Each of these ongoing studies is aimed at significantly improving the current material being used, and offering a cleaner, more-environmentally friendly alternative.

  • For more information on this topic, contact Catherine Doss at (540) 231-5035.

Honors and awards

The recognition and honors that James McGrath has attained during his career include:

  • Owner, 50 patents
  • Author, nine books
  • Recipient, American Chemical Society (ACS) Award in Polymer Chemistry
  • Recipient, Society of Petroleum Engineers International Award
  • Recipient, ACS Herman Mark Award for outstanding research and leadership in polymer science
  • Recipient, ACS Distinguished Service Award
  • Named, Virginia Outstanding Scientist
  • Member, National Academy of Engineering

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