Paul Podsiadlo is Collegiate Inventors Competition Finalist

October 25, 2008

Collegiate Inventors Competition
A program of the National Inventors Hall of Fame Foundation

For 17 years, the Collegiate Inventors Competition has recognized and encouraged undergraduate and graduate students on their quest to change the world around them. The Competition is one of the most prestigious honors available to college and university innovators. Hertz Fellow, Paul Podsiadlo is one of 12 finalists for this year's competition. Final judging will take place during the week of November 16, 2008 in Kansas City, MO.

Paul Podsiadlo
University of Michigan
Ultra-strong and Stiff, Optically Transparent Plastic Nanocomposites
Advisor: Nicholas Kotov
Graduate category

When Paul Podsiadlo looks at natural materials such as seashells, bones, or teeth, he sees amazing structures. He notes how these seemingly simple yet microscopically quite complex structures have evolved over millions of years into some of the toughest composites, and as he looks at them, he tries to understand their structure and how they function with the hope of mimicking their properties for the development of the next generation of advanced materials. It is this same thoughtful approach to all problems in his research that encourages Podsiadlo and that makes his research exciting for him.

For his University of Michigan research, Podsiadlo knew he wanted to create high performance materials by using nanotechnology as his tool. His innovation is “plastic steel,” a transparent plastic sheet that is ultra strong, with remarkable properties approaching the values of steel and its alloys. To create his composite plastic, Podsiadlo begins with nanoscale materials, actually clay nanotubes that individually are extremely strong. One of his challenges was determining how to transfer the nanoscale mechanical properties to a macroscale end product. Podsiadlo uses a layer-by-layer assembly technique to alternately deposit nanometer-thin layers of clay nanosheets and polymer, ending up with a product comprised of hundreds of layers. The structure of the final product resembles that found in the seashell: the nacre.

Podsiadlo looks forward to the broad impact his innovation could have, especially in the military, aviation, medical, and energy sectors. He envisions his structure being used for anything from body armor to biomedical coatings. In fact, research for the project was initially funded by the U.S. Defense Department and the National Institutes of Health.

Podsiadlo, 30, was born in a small village in Poland where he always enjoyed the sciences and math in school, often helping his teacher grade math exams. At 17, he came to the United States and graduated from Bridgman High School in Bridgman, Michigan in 1997. As he studied at a local community college, he found that his most interesting classes were in chemistry. In fact, he remembers an experience in the lab making a sample of common acetylsalicylic acid, also known as aspirin, as a particularly positive moment that piqued his interest in the topic. Unsure whether his English skills would allow him to succeed at a school such as the University of Michigan, Podsiadlo took a chance and applied and was thrilled when he was accepted.

In 2002, Podsiadlo received his bachelor’s in chemical engineering, in 2006, he received his master’s, and in 2008, he received his Ph.D. During his doctoral research in 2006, Podsiadlo was granted a five-year fellowship from the Hertz Foundation, supporting his research at Michigan. Now a U.S. citizen, Podsiadlo lives in the Chicago area with his wife Aneta, who is expecting their first child in December. Currently he is a Frank Willard Libby Postdoctoral Fellow at the Argonne National Laboratory’s Center for Nanoscale Materials where he continues his research in nanotechnology. Podsiadlo admits, “I really enjoy research, every aspect of it. I can’t just go home and switch off. My wife probably knows more about carbon nanotubes and clay nanosheets than she wishes she did.”