Jim Hutchison ’86

Researcher aims to revolutionize science in the greenest way possible

Jim Hutchison ’86 is a busy man.

He is trying to create more accurate pregnancy tests and MRI images, clothes that don’t smell when you work out, and more. And he is doing it all by manipulating particles 1/50,000 the width of a human hair, in the most environmentally friendly way possible.

Hutchison, a 1986 graduate of the College of Arts and Sciences, joined the UO faculty in 1994 and is now the Lokey-Harrington Chair in Chemistry. As a member of the American Chemistry Society Green Chemistry Institute’s governing board, a member of the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute’s (ONAMI) leadership team, and the founder and director of the ONAMI’s Safer Nanomaterials and Nanomanufacturing Initiative, his resume is as long as the implications of his work are varied.

Nanotechnology is the manipulation of tiny matter. Really tiny matter. As in, matter that is between one and 100 nanometers in size, which is literally 1/50,000 the width of a human hair. Hutchison, who considers himself a materials chemist, is an expert in manipulating nanomolecules to change the way they react and interact with other molecules.

“Take my wedding ring,” said Hutchison. “If I cut it in half, my wife would be angry but it would still look like gold. But if I keep cutting it up, all the way down to the nano size, the pieces wouldn’t look gold anymore. They’d look brilliant red, like a nice red wine. The red in stained glass is gold particles that are that size. As you manipulate the size of gold from one nanometer up to 100 nanometers, you get all different colors. What’s fascinating as a nanochemist is that, by being able to manipulate matter on such a small scale, you can change these properties.

“Color is one property, but you can also change the way the properties react; they can be catalysts to make other materials, to degrade toxic gasses, to make inks to make electronic materials for the semiconductor industry. They’re useful for so many things. By controlling the details of the property—the size and the coating—you can change the properties tremendously. I like to think of it as adding another dimension to the periodic table.”

At the UO, Hutchison and his fellow researchers are working on nanoparticles to make them do an incredibly wide range of things: mapping out biological pathways or illustrating cancer cells and tumors more clearly in MRI machines; preventing buildup of odor in athletic apparel; giving more accurate readings in pregnancy tests; providing a more environmentally friendly way to make metal oxide particles; and much more.

“One of my dreams is that we can build catalysts that can use sunlight to directly convert carbon dioxide into fuel,” he said. “We can close the carbon loop. We have some leads that we’re working on there, using nanoparticles to convert carbon dioxide in the air. That’s a very early project, and we have some nice leads on that.”

But just as Hutchison isn’t just a scientist—he’s also an avid outdoorsman who used to run track with the Ducks and spends his spare time as a leader in the Willamette Pass Ski Patrol—in the lab he isn’t just working on bending nanoparticles to his will: he is also trying to do it in as clean a manner as possible.

“Traditionally, the way that chemistry has been practiced is that we’ve found something that’s fantastic, and we’ve run with it and bring it to market and ten to twenty years later we say, ‘Crap, look at what it’s doing to the environment, look at the new waste streams we’ve created,’” Hutchison said.

But Hutchison aims to change that, by considering the potentially negative effects at the outset of research, and minimizing as many as possible. That alone has many potential benefits, both to the environment and to the bottom line.

“In our research here, and in our leadership position in green chemistry, we’re trying to show people a better way,” he said. “There’s this myth that things that are greener will perform less well and will be more expensive, and that just isn’t the case. If you design it well, you can gain a competitive advantage. It can perform better and you’ll use fewer resources, making it greener at the same time. It’s not that it’s easy, but it’s certainly doable, and more companies are catching on that it gives them more profitability in the long run.”

While still a relatively emerging field—though one already receiving heavy investment from governments around the world—nanotechnology is already having an impact on society, from quantum dots in new TV screens that give more brilliant color, to windows that clean themselves. By striving to make his own research as “green” as possible, Hutchison is positioning the UO as an environmentally friendly leader in a field poised to revolutionize the way almost everything we use is constructed.

“The future of this field really is only bound by imagination,” Hutchison said.

To learn more about Hutchison’s research in the “Hutch Lab,” click here.

Jim Hutchison will be the featured speaker at the Portland Science Night on November 5, discussing just how nanotechnology can shape the future. For more information, and to register for his talk, click here.