Charlisa Daniels, an assistant professor of chemistry at NKU, wants to save the world. She recently received a grant from the ACS Petroleum Research Fund to study an external stimuli polymer with potential environmental benefits.

“Polymers are made up of what we call a monomer—a single building block,” she says. “So, think if I had yellow Legos and keep building them and make a polymer. But what if I want a red Lego or green Legos, too? I can make co-block polymers with different colors and make a big tower that has four different colors. Now I have this material that can do more than one thing. Maybe the yellow Lego responds to temperature, the blue one adds stability and so on.”

It all started when Daniels went to the Dominican Republic for an alternative spring break. Finding clean water was a challenge, so, along with her students, Daniels developed a water filtration system from charcoal, clay and silver nanoparticles.

She later theorized something similar that could “sponge” unwanted substances from our oceans.

“I want to look at molecules that are environmentally relevant,” she says. “There are a lot of domestic issues that we need to focus on. Big corporations would rather pay a fine than clean up their waste. There are potential carcinogens that could cause cancer in those communities that surround where these waste products are.

“Wouldn’t it be cool if we engineered a Roomba for oil spills?”