In Motion: Zach Heiden catalyzes results
Almost every human-made thing in your daily life exists because of catalysis—a process that speeds up chemical reactions and makes it easier to turn raw materials into useful products, like cars, paper, laundry detergent, and wine.
Zachariah “Zach” Heiden, assistant professor of chemistry, is an expert in using catalysis to solve problems in energy and the environment. He is developing new catalysts for efficiently turning waste plastics into fuel, for transforming alcohols into water, and for keeping bananas and other fruits from spoiling.
What led you to choose catalysis as your specialty?
I wanted to learn why things are colored. As an undergraduate, I took an inorganic chemistry class to fulfill an advanced science elective for my chemical engineering degree. One of the first things I learned about was why things are colored, and I thought the science behind it was absolutely fascinating.
From there, inorganic chemistry just seemed to click for me and I decided to get involved in undergraduate research and add chemistry as an additional major. That led me to pursue chemistry in graduate school at the University of Illinois. Coming from a low-income family, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity of a ‘free’ education (I was offered a stipend while in graduate school). It just went on from there. I was a postdoc at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland before joining the faculty in Pullman in 2013.
What’s the focus of your current research?
I study new ways to design and apply catalysis. My research group is involved in a number of projects, such as developing new processes to split carbon–carbon bonds in order to turn plastics into fuel and to quickly and affordably break down soda bottles, milk jugs, and other consumer plastics that don’t naturally degrade in the environment.
We’re also looking into new ways to make water from alcohols and other unlikely starting materials. The method we’re developing could one day help reduce the impact of droughts that are affecting places like California.
Another project I’m involved in is the development of compounds that can sense the buildup of ethylene—a gas that ripening fruit emits, which then causes other nearby fruit to ripen. For example, if you have a single bad banana that is emitting ethylene in a warehouse, it can start a chain reaction that will make all the produce in the building go bad. The compounds we are developing can sense and bind ethylene. They could eventually be used by fruit and vegetable wholesalers to tell which produce is ripening quickly and to ensure customers receive a product that is not overripe or very close to it.
What do you enjoy about teaching at WSU?
That eureka moment when one of my students all of a sudden realizes he or she got the correct answer to a particularly challenging problem. I enjoy teaching difficult concepts, and there’s something particularly rewarding about telling someone ‘yes, you got that right’ after they’ve put in a lot of time and effort.
What real-world lessons does chemistry teach?
More than anything, chemistry teaches you to be adaptable. Although the reactions I design don’t always work how I intended—or maybe don’t work at all—what I quickly learned, and what I teach my students, is that it’s not the end of the world when a reaction doesn’t work. What matters is how you deal with the results. You have to be a problem solver who can deal with fluid situations.
Does your interest in chemistry go beyond teaching and research?
Yes, one of my hobbies is winemaking. My dad sent me my first winemaking kit when I moved to Washington state five years ago, and, since then, I’ve produced around 600 bottles consisting of about 25 different varieties. I now have my own small, home winery called ‘Patience and Perseverance.’
I also enjoy helping my graduate students learn about winemaking. The average aging time for red wine is three to five years, which coincidentally is about how long it takes to for a graduate student to finish their degree. This fact inspired me to incorporate winemaking into my research group activities. When someone joins the group, they can choose a wine-making kit of whatever varietal they prefer. They’re responsible for each step, from the start of fermentation to bottling, and can sample one bottle every year to see how their wine is progressing. When they’re about to graduate and leave the research group, we have a dinner and taste their wine. Most of it becomes their going-away present. A bottle of wine makes for a great memento.