Polymers & High Performance Materials

The School of Polymers and High Performance Materials is a national leader in the multidisciplinary field that touches on everyday items such as LCD TVs, paints and coatings, synthetic fabrics, golf clubs and shampoo.

But its cutting-edge research is anything but ordinary.

Polymer researcher Marek Urban and graduate student Biswajit Ghosh, for example, have created a type of polyurethane coating that has self-healing properties: When it's scratched and then exposed to ultraviolet light, damaged molecules reform and erase the imperfection.

As technology magazine Wired explained, "A few years down the road, you may be able to get that scratch out of your car’s bumper simply by parking in a sunny spot." The research study was published in the journal Science in 2009.

Facilities and rankings

Based in the $30 million, 104,000-square-foot Shelby F. Thames Polymer Science Research Center, researchers have access to state-of-the-art testing equipment, an advanced microscopy center, and a fabrication and electronics facility to design and create new equipment.

National rankings, such as those published by Academic Analytics on scholarly productivity, list the school in the top 10 based on its faculty members’ productivity. Industry partnerships and government funding bring in millions of research dollars annually.

Composites in action

Researchers are developing new composite materials that are akin to the Olympic creed of “faster, higher, stronger.” The composites will be used to build stronger, more durable materials that will find applications in areas such as next-generation marine and aerospace vehicles.

Lightweight, high-performance composite parts will be produced for GE Aviation's GEnx engine on Boeing 787 and 747-8 aircraft. A $2.4 million grant from the Mississippi Development Authority is funding the Southern Miss-GE collaboration.

The school is a cross-discipline mix of researchers from chemistry, physics, chemical engineering and biochemistry – and, since 2007, human performance and recreation.

Good sports get better

The first-of-its-kind Sports and High Performance Materials program was created to research the creation of safer and longer-lasting clothing and apparel, prosthetics and sports equipment. Additional applications are body armor and materials for military use.

Graduates will be prepared to work in the sports industry, knowledgeable not only in the science of polymers and materials but also in biomechanics and exercise physiology. Polymer Science and Engineering professor Jeff Wiggins, in fact, is a former general manager of manufacturing at Nike.

Getting personal with polymers

Another industry leader is Dr. Robert Lochhead, a longtime researcher and expert on the properties of materials that are used in cosmetics, shampoo and other personal-care products. He is president of the Society of Cosmetic Chemists and in March 2010 brought an international panel to Southern Miss to name the complex chemical compounds that make up products such as toothpaste, hair dyes and shaving cream.

Scientists, business leaders and government regulators from the Food and Drug Administration, Clairol, L'Oreal, Estee Lauder and Dow-Corning – and from as far away as Europe and Japan – participated in the important oversight work.