Prof Richard Wool, who has died aged 67, emigrated to the United States after graduating from UCC in l969 and went on to become an internationally renowned scientist at the cutting edge of green chemistry.
In the forefront of academic research in biomolecular engineering, he developed radically new methods of using benign substances such as vegetable oil, old newspapers, chicken feathers and flax to create high-performance products ranging from boats to roofing material and breathable synthetic “eco leather” for sports shoes.
Spending all his academic life in America, Wool was a remarkable scientist, engineer and researcher. Passionate about developing affordable and safe materials from natural and renewable resources, he became a world leader in his field, inventing ways to reduce or eliminate the use and generation of hazardous, toxic or carcinogenic byproducts from non-renewable raw materials such as petroleum, natural gas and minerals.
His discoveries include new adhesives, soy-based composites for making tractor panels, wind turbine parts, boats, bio-based foams to replace polyurethane used by packaging and automotive suppliers, a leather substitute to avoid harmful traditional methods of tanning (his start-up company collaborates with
and Puma), even circuit boards.
An outstanding teacher, adviser and mentor to the next generation of green engineers, he won the prestigious Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award in 2013, a prize conferred by the US Environmental Protection Agency and backed by President Obama.
The thinking behind the award is to make manufacturing processes safer, thus protecting workers, the public and the environment while conserving energy and water supplies.
As professor of chemistry and biomolecular engineering at the University of Delaware, Wool received the accolade for guiding the invention of an array of non-hazardous polymers and other biobased materials.
Blessed with an irrepressibly positive outlook, he predicted that the award would “ enhance our development of sustainable materials from renewable resources in support of human health and the environment. In particular,” he added, “we still need to work on low-toxicity replacements for commodity plastics such as polystyrene, PVC, polyurethane, polycarbonate, adhesives, foams, and composite resins, in addition to leather-like materials.”
Born in Cork, he grew up in Cobh. where he developed a lifelong love of sailing and playing Irish music on the guitar. After attending the local Presentation school he graduated with an honours BSc in chemistry at UCC, where he met his future wife, Deborah Fitzgerald.
In 1969, the couple moved to the US, where they married. After a master’s in 1972, in 1974 he received his doctorate in materials science and engineering, both at the University of Utah.
After lecturing, over 18 years, in New York, Colorado, and Illinois, he moved to the University of Delaware, where he taught until his death. A fellow of the
of Chemistry and the American Physical Society, he published more than 150 papers and two books, and held four patents. In 1984 he was a guest professor at the Politecnico of Milan, in 1991 at the École Polytechnique in Paris, and in 2002 at the physics department of Trinity College Dublin.
He is survived by his widow, Deborah, their three daughters Sorcha, Meghan and Breeda, and by his sister, Margaret.