Mitsubishi Chemical and UCSB Link Arms Again, Extend Research Partnership


Andrea Vallone
Staff Writer

The Mitsubishi Chemical Corporation of Tokyo and the University of California, Santa Barbara announced on Monday, April 14, that they will be renewing their materials research alliance by four more years–at the end of which would be a lengthy 17-year relationship between the multimillion dollar technology company and our university. The program is called Mitsubishi Chemical Center for Advanced Materials (MC-CAM) at UCSB, and it appears that it will be here to stay.

Thirteen years ago, an old colleague contacted UCSB Chemical Engineering professor Glenn Fredrickson. George Stephanopalois, who at the time had been invited to be the Chief Technology Officer of Mitsubishi, wanted to create an external partnership with a university in the functional materials area. As “UCSB had such a high quality and broad materials program, in addition to being on the west coast, we were the natural choice,” said Professor Fredrickson.

Turns out Stephanopalois made the right choice–the initial contract was set for five years, but due to consistently successful results, it has been renewed three times since, with the most recent extension being the fourth. In response to what prompted the most recent extension, Professor Fredrickson replied, “Great results. It’s easy to keep selling this program to Mitsubishi management when you do good science. Science that’s not only pushing the frontier but also strategically aligned with where they want their business to go in the future.”

What’s even more indicative of the trust Mitsubishi has in UCSB’s chemical engineering and materials departments is that despite the four- to five-year long commitment on Mitsubishi’s end, the departments only fund their projects year by year. This means that Mitsubishi is willing to endow UCSB despite only getting short-term plans every year.

“We’re adaptable,” says Fredrickson. “It’s in our best interests to do things that they care about, not only because it keeps the alliance strong but also because frankly, the problems we’re trying to solve are really hard problems, and it’s interesting science that you need to sort out in order to address those challenges.” Past research has included materials for new battery technologies, such as battery extension and efficiency for your smartphone, or improvements in battery technology for electric vehicles or chemical storage.

“Mitsubishi defined precise target for us,” Fredrickson explained. “We have to figure out, how do we solve this problem, how do we come up with material that meet this specific characteristics? We’re helping to promote a really interesting technology.”

The most recent development is in heat management in power electronics, namely a polymer resin. Led by Craig Hawker, co-director of the Materials Research Lab at UCSB, research has produced a polymer that has very high thermal conductivity yet is aesthetically comparable to plastic. Now that computer chips are constantly expected to be reduced in dimension but increased in capacity and storage (think MacBook Airs, or tiny Dell laptops), more and more power is being channeled in a smaller and smaller space. In order to get the heat out, these companies employ bulkier products, but if one uses the polymer, it will extract heat efficiently while remaining malleable like plastic.

The relationship with Mitsubishi has also led to many new opportunities for UCSB graduate students, some of whom have traveled to Japan and given presentations to the MC-CAM base there.

“Its called technology transfer,” says Fredrickson. “We teach them how to make certain kinds of chemical compounds or show them how to do certain kinds of measurements to better understand even their own materials.” Graduate students have also gone on to be hired by Mitsubishi and oversee the MC-CAM project itself. But MC-CAM is not exclusive to graduate students; Fredrickson stated that this past year, three to four undergraduates were active participants in MC-CAM projects.

Professor Fredrickson also discussed an interesting statistic that emerged from the program that he asserts is an accurate measure of “efficiency and innovation.” Throughout the MC-CAM project, 100 patents have been proposed and there have been 130 publications. These figures alone are wildly impressive, but what’s even more mind-boggling is the ratio of research funds to patent applications. A typical research university applying for a patent spends about $2.5 million. A typical technology company, like those residing in Silicon Valley, needs roughly $500,000. At UCSB through MC-CAM, it’s been $300,000 per patent. That figure is an accurate depiction of the efficiency the program has with respect to patents per research dollar, and gives us insight into why Mitsubishi has been so enthusiastic about the partnership.

The MC-CAM program illustrates how UCSB is at the forefront of innovation in applied technology – and in the midst of recent conversations about the reputation of our campus, this is what we should be talking about.