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Whitney Loo
September 12, 2022

Focus on new faculty: Whitney Loo wants polymers to be part of a sustainable future

Written By: Jason Daley

Polymers are all around us—for most people, literally. Clothing, electronics, food packaging, cars and even medical devices are made from the long-chain molecules, which include things like plastic, nylon and synthetic rubber. While polymers are extremely useful, they have some major drawbacks; most are derived from petroleum products and are not optimized for recycling.

But Whitney Loo, who will join the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in January 2023 as an assistant professor, hopes to develop polymers that enable new sustainable technologies. “The questions my lab will be thinking about are how we can leverage polymers for a more sustainable future,” she says. “How can we design new polymers for battery electrolytes or fuel cell membranes for green energy technology as well as new functional everyday materials that are sourced from sustainable feedstocks?”

Loo’s path to polymers began when she was very young. Growing up the daughter of two surgeons, she felt the need to apply her talents in the medical field, but did not want to be a physician. That led her to MIT where, as an undergraduate, she worked with chemical engineer Bob Langer, whose lab works on the interface between biotechnology and chemical science. While she enjoyed the materials side of the work, she found the biological elements time consuming and slow.

So when she began her PhD work at the University of California Berkeley, Loo focused on materials design and polymer science. There, she developed new block copolymers for use in batteries and energy storage devices. “I had the pleasure of working pretty much solely with materials that I synthesized myself,” she says. “I think with that, there comes a lot of ownership over your research. Because after you do that synthesis, you think, wow, nobody else in the entire world has this exact molecule. I am the only person to synthesize it. And if I don’t study it, and learn everything I can about it, nobody ever will.”

In 2020, Loo began work as a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Chicago and the Molecular Foundry at Lawrence Berkeley National Lab exploring ways to use block copolymers in nanolithography for semiconductor manufacturing.

At UW-Madison, Loo plans on continuing her work in these areas and extending her research into finding more sustainable polymers. “We have such a large quantity of plastic waste out in the world,” she says. “How can we develop new recycling or upcycling technologies to reuse and reduce the amount that we’re currently generating?”

Loo thinks UW-Madison has the resources and a collegial culture that will help keep her research moving forward. “UW-Madison’s commitment to serving the public and serving the state is something that I really admire. I think that, as an engineer, it’s always good to be reminded of who your work is supposed to benefit,” she says. “And having that so clearly laid out at the university level is really helpful to keep yourself motivated to work on these really challenging problems.”