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Department of Communications/
News Bureau
22 Davis Hall, 10 Lippitt Road, Kingston, RI 0288
Phone: 401-874-2116 Fax: 401-874-7872

Media Contact: Jan Wenzel, 874-2116

URI chemistry professor to receive medal for research

KINGSTON, R.I. -- March 18, 2003 -- Chemically speaking, hair and wool are alike. That may surprise the sheep, but the fact is both wool and hair are composed of protein called keratin. Fingernails and rhinoceros horns are made of keratin too, but Louis Kirschenbaum of Kingston, a professor of chemistry at the University of Rhode Island, hasn’t researched them. He does, however, know a great deal about hair and wool.

In fact, the Worshipful Company of Dyers will recognize him for his research on wool and other textiles next month in London. Kirschenbaum and his Australian collaborator Keith Millington of Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Textile and Fibre Technology will receive the Dyers’ annual research medal. About a third of the current members of the Dyers Guild –which dates back to 1188 --are engaged in the dyeing or chemical industries.

The researchers were chosen for the award for their paper "Detection of hydroxyl radicals in photoirradiated wool, cotton, nylon, and polyester fabrics using a fluorescent probe." While the title is quite a mouthful, the upshot is the two men are trying to discover exactly how textiles, in particular wool, yellow or degrade when exposed to the sun. To ensure that yellowing doesn’t occur, some sheep are actually kept indoors their entire lives!

The rascals responsible for yellowing are hydroxyl radicals. Electrons like to be paired, noted the URI chemist. However, these free radicals – ones with one or more unpaired electrons – are formed by a chemical reaction when the wool is exposed to sunlight. And these radicals like to attack things.

The URI professor worked with Millington during his 2000-2001 sabbatical in Australia while his wife Susan Kirschenbaum, an experimental psychologist with the Naval Undersea Warfare Center in Newport, studied the methods used by the Australian Naval Weather Forecasters.

The leap from hair to wool was small for the URI professor. Prior to his sabbatical, Kirschenbaum did some basic research on hair funded, in part, by a hair care company. Sunlight damages and discolors hair, demonstrating again that free radicals are up to no good.

Kirschenbaum remains curious about free radicals. How can they be stopped? Why, for instance, do sulfur-crested cockatoo feathers remain pure white?

Kirschenbaum is less concerned with the application of his research than in the basic science. "The goal of applied scientists such as Dr. Millington is in suppressing free radicals. To do that, we need to know what’s happening and how it is happening. Then we can apply the science, try to solve problems such as what kind of chemical treatments do we need for hair, skin, or in this case fabric?"

Kirschenbaum’s love of chemistry and research began at an early age. As a teenager, he asked for and received chemistry set. Even earlier the future chemist was mixing pharmaceuticals in the sink. He was especially attracted to the purple color and reactivity of potassium permanganate, an antibacterial found in the family medicine cabinet. "Actually, potassium permanganate was the subject of my first publication, " the professor recalled.

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