The Mudroom

Sticky Business

An OSU innovator is reinventing the science of adhesives.

By Nicole Morales March 9, 2011 Published in the April 2011 issue of Portland Monthly

WRITE YOURSELF a Post-it note: an Oregon State University scientist is greening the $25 billion industry that sticks the modern world together, typically with toxic chemicals.

Two years ago, Kaichang Li, a Corvallis wood and science engineering professor, dabbed some leftover vegetable-oil goo from a botched wood-glue experiment on a piece of paper. The Chinese native and 2007 EPA green chemistry award winner folded the paper over, pressed down, and presto: failure turned to potential revolution.

Li filed for a patent on this new, entirely organic, pressure-sensitive adhesive last June. Now, Oregon State is negotiating with an unnamed corporation to license the glue for manufacture. (“There are two aspects to any invention,” says Li, “the material makeup and getting it to market. In this case, the second part is complicated, because this is good stuff.”) Ultimately, Li aims to do for tape, sticky notes, and postage stamps what he’s already done for wood products.

In 2002, Li invented a formaldehyde-free wood adhesive inspired by mussels on the Oregon coast. Li replicated the mollusks’ natural ability to cling to wave-pounded rocks by transferring mussel amino acids into modified soy protein—tofu, basically. The result: a commercial hardwood plywood, marketed as PureBond, that keeps toxic emissions out of the air, and sells for about the same price as conventional building materials. PureBond earned Li his EPA award and numerous other plaudits.

Li hopes his new glue will become a competitive alternative to the petroleum-based stickums now used to seal the world’s Christmas presents and moving boxes. The breakthrough is part of a stunning innovation boom in Corvallis, where OSU’s science programs and a major Hewlett-Packard research facility combined to snag more than 300 patents last year. Stick it to ’em, Kaichang.

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