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ACS Award For Creative Invention

by Bethany Halford
January 14, 2013 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 91, Issue 2

Credit: Courtesy of Timothy Swager
Timothy M. Swager, John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
Credit: Courtesy of Timothy Swager

Sponsored by ACS Corporation Associates

Superheroes fight bad guys with their superhuman abilities. Timothy M. Swager thwarts them with organic electronic polymers. As the inventor of the technology that’s in Fido—short for fluorescence impersonating dog olfaction—Swager, professor of chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, developed the chemistry that led to the most sensitive explosives sensors ever produced.

The polymer-based sensors in Fido resemble traditional electronics in that they require uninterrupted connections within the polymer’s pi network to carry a signal. When a lone molecule of an explosive such as TNT binds to one of the polymers, it disrupts the connection and alters the signal produced by the sensor.

“Swager’s unique approach of designing highly specific reaction chemistry alongside desired electronic properties resulted in a class of materials that revolutionized the instrumentation required to perform trace explosives analysis in the field,” notes Aimee Rose, a principal investigator and product sales director at FLIR Systems—the company that currently uses Fido technology to build explosive-sensing devices for the armed services. “This radical advance enabled FLIR to deliver a critical tool to soldiers on the front lines in Iraq and Afghanistan, exactly when our nation needed it.”

“The incredible creativity of this invention, coupled with its profound impact, makes Tim Swager a highly deserving recipient of the ACS Award for Creative Invention,” comments David R. Walt, a chemical sensor expert at Tufts University.

Other work from Swager’s lab includes molecular designs for high-strength materials and an ethylene sensor that monitors fruit for ripeness. “His breadth of interests and impact illustrate his pioneering approach to research and a creative genius to envision new materials,” notes a colleague.

Swager, 51, says he’s proud to receive an award that recognizes invention. “I think that chemistry is in need of a cultural transition to where invention and technology are more valued,” he says. In academic chemistry, he remarks, there’s a bit of snobbery about only conducting purely fundamental research. But Swager believes that fundamental research and technological impact aren’t mutually exclusive. “Something can be fundamental and have applications today,” he says.

These views might brand Swager as a cowboy of chemistry, and it turns out the John D. MacArthur Professor of Chemistry at MIT wanted to be a real cowboy before he caught the chemistry bug. “I didn’t want to go to college originally,” he admits. “I wanted to be a rancher.” He spent a week last year in his native Montana prospecting for gold with his brother.

Ultimately, undergraduate work at Montana State University convinced Swager that he enjoyed chemistry. It’s like skiing, he says, “the first few times down the hill are terrifying, but once you’re good, it’s really fun.” Swager went to California Institute of Technology for graduate school, where he studied with Robert H. Grubbs. Postdoctoral work with Mark S. Wrighton, then at MIT, followed. Swager began his faculty career at the University of Pennsylvania and moved to MIT in 1996.

He has published more than 300 papers and has over 40 patents, either issued or pending. When he’s not doing chemistry, Swager says, he’s working to be a good father to his two daughters.

Swager will present the award address before the ACS Division of Polymer Chemistry.


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