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    The Scientist Trying to Change Sulfur’s Smelly Reputation

    Drawing on years of sulfur research, chemistry professor Jiang Xuefeng specializes in making sulfur easier to handle in industrial and medical applications. Now he’s pioneering its use to tackle plastic pollution.
    Jun 06, 2024#science#Shanghai

    Where most smell trouble in the sharp stench of sulfur — often associated with gas leaks or the unmistakable odor of rotten eggs — Jiang Xuefeng smells potential.

    Since 2008, Jiang has led efforts to redefine sulfur’s role within China’s scientific community. By developing new industrial and medical applications, he aims to change the perception of sulfur from a problematic chemical to a crucial element in technological advancements.

    “I hope that one day, when people mention sulfur, they will think of me,” says Jiang, wearing a polo shirt sporting the formula for Trabectedin, an anti-cancer drug synthesized in his laboratory at Shanghai’s East China Normal University.

    His pioneering “3S sulfur chemistry” — sulfur that is stable, sustainable, and smells less — has led to methods that mask sulfur’s odor and enhance its utility. This approach has secured over 100 patents and collaborations with more than 30 companies across medicine, materials, and fragrance sectors, showcasing sulfur’s potential beyond its notorious smell.

    Jiang’s latest project tackles marine pollution. In partnership with the government of China’s southern island province of Hainan, he established a plastic degradation center to develop sustainable solutions for plastic waste.

    So why sulfur?

    The element plays an essential role across many sectors. In industry, it is a key ingredient in producing compounds like sulfuric acid and sulfates, with applications in rubber, explosives, and dyes.

    In medicine and life sciences, sulfur is crucial for processes like nucleic acid and protein synthesis, blood oxygenation, and metabolic pathways, acting as a key component in many biochemical reactions as a reducing agent or stabilizer. Over a quarter of all pharmaceuticals contain sulfur elements, including antibiotics like penicillin.

    Despite its many applications, sulfur is not an easy element to work with.

    Its compounds often emit pungent odors, even in minute concentrations. And sulfur’s interaction with metal catalysts can render them inactive. Its intricate oxidation states present further hurdles in reaction design.

    “The mix of sulfur’s importance and its challenges inspired me to focus my research on it,” says Jiang. “I believe scientists should work on projects that are both valuable and challenging.”

    Jiang’s research into sulfur began in 2008 during his postdoctoral years at the renowned Scripps Research Institute in the U.S. Before that, he graduated from Northwest University in Xi’an, the capital of Shaanxi province, and conducted doctoral research at the Shanghai Institute of Organic Chemistry, where he authored 17 papers.

    “The research ethos in the U.S. prioritizes independence and innovation, encouraging postdoctoral fellows to explore new avenues and carve out an academic niche,” says Jiang. “My transition at Scripps from my doctoral focus on organometallic chemistry to the uncharted realm of sulfur was a natural progression.”

    When he returned to China in 2011 and joined East China Normal University, his first goal was to tackle sulfur’s foul odor.

    “I didn’t want my students to endure that smell in the laboratory all day; it would be too unpleasant,” he says. “Moreover, our lab is in downtown Shanghai, so we couldn’t afford to have the stink of rotten eggs wafting through the city center.”

    They began by getting sulfur dioxide molecules to bond with exposed sulfur groups by introducing inorganic salts, converting inorganic sulfur into organic sulfur. “The principle involves temporarily enclosing the sulfur atom with other atoms — like placing a mask on sulfur, temporarily concealing its odor,” he explains.

    The success of this “masking strategy” opened new possibilities, including reducing sulfur’s detrimental impact on metal catalysts and addressing its toxicity and susceptibility to oxidation.

    Despite his many scientific breakthroughs, the initial stages of Jiang’s research were marked by significant financial constraints.

    Between 2011 and 2014, he got by on a monthly salary of just 5,900 yuan ($815) and had to pursue various funding sources available to young researchers. His first grant was 100,000 yuan from the Shanghai Talent Development Fund, followed by 200,000 yuan from the Pujiang Talent Program, also based in Shanghai.

    “These funds were really crucial for me,” he recalls. “And they were more than just money to me. They were honors.”

    Jiang’s contributions were finally recognized in 2014 by several major talent programs and research groups, leading to an additional 2.4 million yuan in funding. This allowed him to further develop his “3S sulfur chemistry” research.

    However, Jiang says he was never in it for the money. “I solely focus on technical issues. Had I prioritized financial gain, I would not have chosen this profession in the first place,” he asserts. “My focus is on pursuing meaningful endeavors and advancing cutting-edge technology.”

    New mission

    While his work on sulfur has garnered much acclaim, Jiang is pursuing new scientific breakthroughs. One such venture is his recent collaboration with the Hainan government to combat plastic pollution.

    The 2019 initiative is part of the tourism-dependent island province’s push to create a national ecological zone to address the pervasive issue of plastic pollution that affects both land and sea.

    Traditional methods for processing plastics pose significant limitations. Enzyme-based degradation is slow and can produce harmful byproducts, while high-temperature recycling often results in lower-quality materials.

    Jiang’s approach uses chemical degradation with non-radioactive uranium-238 as a catalyst. This breakthrough, published in the Science Bulletin in July 2023, offers more efficient and environmentally friendly solutions.

    “Waste plastics undergo degradation to yield monomers or other high-value chemical raw materials, facilitating the production of new and superior plastics, pharmaceutical intermediates, fragrances, and flavors,” says Jiang.

    He plans to establish a “closed-loop” industrial development model at the plastic degradation center in Hainan’s southern city of Sanya before replicating it nationwide.

    Jiang is also exploring the use of artificial intelligence. He believes that integrating machine learning into chemistry can revolutionize the field, primarily through automation.

    To this end, his laboratory has started developing high-precision instruments for synthetic chemistry.

    “Such automated instruments can help perform repetitive experiments, reducing human intervention and increasing safety,” he says. “It can also significantly improve efficiency and reduce costs. This will help accelerate the field’s entry into the ‘AI for chemistry’ stage.”

    In addition to spearheading multiple research projects, Jiang manages a demanding schedule that includes teaching, leading industrial teams, and attending various meetings, on top of a 10-kilometer run every morning.

    He also conducts popular science classes for teenagers and won the top prize at the 2022 Shanghai Science Popularization Day for his “Wonderful World of Chemistry” program.

    When asked about his ability to handle so many tasks, Jiang emphasized the importance of “first principles,” the process of breaking down complex problems into their most basic elements to solve them more effectively.

    He says: “I always adhere to first principles, as my goal is to solve problems. Some may think I do a lot, but in reality, I’m simply focused on doing what I do best.”

    (Header image: Matthew Williams-Ellis/Getty Creative/VCG)