For Darryl Boyd (B.S. ’04), being a polymer chemist means getting comfortable with failure—really comfortable. On a typical day, Boyd will go to the lab and review his notes from the day before. He’ll run an experiment, and it’ll fail. So he’ll change one variable, run it again, and it’ll fail. Then he’ll try again by altering another variable. “And it’ll probably fail. At this point,” he says, “I’m usually kind of bothered, so I’ll break for lunch.”
For Boyd, letting his mind wander and relax helps him think of new approaches, which he’ll gamely take back to the lab to try again. Probably these will fail too, and he’ll write down the day’s results and some new ideas, and repeat the whole thing again the next day.
“I have incremental success week by week, and maybe every six months I have significant progress,” Boyd says. “Every once in a while, things will just completely click. That happens maybe a couple times a year, but you can never predict when.”
Boyd is a chemist at the Naval Research Laboratory (NRL) in Washington D.C. in the Optical Sciences Division. Because it’s a government agency, Boyd can’t say a lot about his work, but he will say sulfur is involved. Lots and lots of it. If sulfur isn’t stripped away from crude oil, it makes its way into fuel emissions, reacts with oxygen and water vapor, and becomes acid rain.
According to the EPA, most of the 68,000,000 metric tons of sulfur produced around the world in 2012 came from processing natural gas and refining crude oils. Once the sulfur is extracted at a refinery, it’s stored in stock piles, some as huge as 10 stories tall and the length of multiple football fields. Sulfur on its own is pretty benign, but the vast stretches of land required to house it present environmental concerns. “Basically,” he sums up, “we have a lot of sulfur and very few uses for it.”
It’s hard to keep up with almost 70 million tons of sulfur a year, but Boyd and his team work to find a practical application for at least some of it through a chemical process called inverse vulcanization, which stabilizes sulfur with carbon. By using inverse vulcanization, Boyd attempts to create polymers, a synthetic material similar to eyeglass lenses but with a unique characteristic: They have infrared properties, which could enable people to see in very low light.
Humans have long relied on night vision goggles to see in the dark. But the special materials night vision goggles require are expensive and difficult to produce. “These optical polymers we’re making through inverse vulcanization could be one answer to creating lighter, more easily produced versions of these products,” says Boyd.
Boyd has made hundreds and hundreds of these polymers in his lab, and runs experiments to test their optical properties. Can they withstand heat—and, if so, how much? Can they be pulled apart with bare hands or does it take a really strong machine? Are they hard or soft? The properties the polymers do or don’t have will determine how they can be used, and what they can be made into.
Boyd and his team started this project in 2014—just one year after inverse vulcanization was first discovered—and it wasn’t until 2017 that they began to have measurable success. Though the field is growing exponentially, the fact that it’s so young motivates Boyd. “We have the opportunity to put our stamp on this field and help chart its path,” he says. “As a chemist, I can create something that has never been seen before in the history of the planet. I think that’s so cool.”
Science Made Simple
When he’s not in the lab, Boyd puts his stamp on another field: as Dr. Boyd, the Chemist, on Science Made Simple, a science education website he runs for school-aged kids. In videos that begin with bouncy electronica, Boyd leads kids through experiments that use household items, such as glue, cereal, dish soap, and food coloring, to make things like “elephant toothpaste,” homemade glue, and slime—to teach kids basic science principles, like friction, the properties of metals, surface tension, and fluid densities along the way.
Creating videos that highlight science and curiosity and demonstrate that scientific exploration is accessible for everyone is deeply personal for Boyd. His parents enrolled him and his siblings in after-school science programs when he was a kid, and the teachers there had a huge impact on his decision to study science at U-M. Now, he wants to pay that opportunity forward.
“There are very few black scientists in the public sphere,” Boyd says. “I have young cousins who want to study science and engineering, but they’d never seen someone who looked like them actually pursue it as a career. They thought it wasn’t an option for them. My hope is that the videos can inspire anyone interested in science, but especially those who have been left out of the conversation.”
For Boyd, showing science as fun and approachable amplifies his goal of creating new, tangible products with cutting-edge research. “Even when I do a really simple experiment, the kids are just blown away. Doing those demonstrations and seeing them so inspired has helped me get back to basics when I’m in the lab,” Boyd says. “I want us to get the results we’re aiming for. I want us to succeed, to make something people can hold in their hands that can help them.
“If done right and carefully, chemistry can be an incredible benefit to the planet at large.”