Alex Lubnin, Technical Fellow at Lubrizol’s Coatings Synthesis Group, has 40+ years of experience in chemistry and extensive experience in the coatings industry, having been with Lubrizol for 24 years. We spoke to Alex about how his lifelong love for chemistry brought him from Russia to the United States, his accomplishments and topics that he sees as “tidal waves” in the coatings industry: relentless sustainability, environmental, and safety pressures; and, the digital revolution in general and in printing in particular.
“In Your Corner” is a series of interviews with Lubrizol ink and coating experts who share unique insights on key industry challenges and opportunities.
What is your background? How did you get to where you are today?
I graduated from the University of St. Petersburg, Russia (that time, it was Leningrad, USSR) in 1980. Before coming to America, I conducted research at the Central Synthetic Rubber Research Institute (VNIISK) in St. Petersburg. At the end of 1990 when “Perestroika” brought an end to the Iron Curtain, I was invited to work at the University of Akron as a visiting scientist. In 1995, I was hired by the BFGoodrich Co. (now Lubrizol). Apart from a good education, hard work, persistent curiosity and love for chemistry, above all, it was people who propelled me to where I am now and I’m eternally grateful to them. My high school chemistry teacher hooked me on chemistry at the very first lesson and then others followed. I’m also grateful to my parents and family who provided unconditional support throughout my life and put up with my obsession with science.
What is your key area of expertise?
From the technical side, I’d say it is polymer chemistry and chemistry in general, but it is just a tool to solve customers’ problems. Problem solving skills, I believe, are the ultimate core expertise of all successful scientists.
Looking back over your career, what would you say is your biggest accomplishment at Lubrizol?
Running into the risk of been influenced by my own sympathies, I’d say it is diversifying Lubrizol’s waterborne polyurethane dispersion (PUD) product line with patent-protected technologies. When I joined the PUD group in 1999 as a group leader, BFGoodrich was making only two types of products, both anionic: polyester polyurethanes containing NMP solvent and solvent-free polyether polyurethanes. I conceived and implemented nonionic, cationic and pre-plasticized product families, all solvent-free, which expanded our PUD “menu.”
Although my biggest sellers today are acrylics, I believe that these new PUDs hold the most business promise for the nearest and long-term future. Initially, most of them were designed for textile applications, but lately, they turned out to be useful tools for the digital revolution currently taking place in printing industry. Today, we have quite a few “digital” PUDs that became commercial or are at the pilot scale. The same platforms are receiving attention from other business units, and we have ongoing internal and external collaboration.
Thinking about what’s important to industry formulators, is there one topic that really stands out?
There are actually three topics that stand out to me: sustainability, the digital revolution and smart coatings.
Why do you think these topics are so important?
For the near term, which I’d define as less than 10 years, I feel like there are really two tidal waves in our field (and where most of my activities in new product development occur): Relentless sustainability, environmental and safety pressures; and, the digital revolution in general and in printing in particular.
What does sustainability mean to you in the coatings industry?
At the synthesis and formulating level, sustainability largely means removing less friendly chemicals from legacy and new products, and using cost-effective and less toxic raw materials, which, if available, are derived from renewable resources. Examples of these more toxic chemicals include N-methyl pyrrolidone solvent; alkylphenol ethoxylate surfactants; formaldehyde, aziridine and adipic acid dihydrazide crosslinkers; triethylamine neutralizer, and hydrazine chain extender. There is a reason these chemicals are so entrenched in legacy product portfolios: they survived a lengthy and brutal selection process and have the best balance of cost and performance. That makes replacing them a challenging task, but “where there’s a will, there’s a way,” and we are chipping away this mountain.
Apart from the chemicals themselves, how else do you define sustainability?
Reducing energy consumption and carbon footprint, and developing biodegradable and compostable products are other drivers that guide our sustainability efforts. In a broader sense, sustainability is not just about the choice of raw materials. I’ll quote Lubrizol’s Director of Corporate Sustainability Patty Bartee: “In general, sustainability is multifaceted and is ever-changing with new technologies and demands. There will always be ’give and take’ and unintended consequences for decisions made. At Lubrizol, we are trying to balance the give and take to try to drive a positive outcome, looking at the full life cycle and taking a broad definition of sustainability to include environmental, social, governance and economics.”
Given that Earth is finite in dimension and assuming that humans intend to live on it indefinitely, it is a mathematical certainty that, if we keep doing what we are doing, future generations will live on a toxic dump with no natural resources left. Companies that don’t have a sustainability state of mind and don’t participate in the sustainability landslide, will be left behind in the commodity sectors for some time and then, at some point, become history.
How do you think the digital revolution is impacting the coatings industry?
The digital revolution is caused by another relentless pressure of speed, customization, premium quality and cost reduction. The recipe for success here is a great and tight team of application and synthesis scientists who are strong and agile drivers; intimate and dynamic contact with key customers; reliable support from the supply chain, regulatory and business sides; and, dependable pilot and production engineers. I believe we have all the critical components in place at Lubrizol, and the incoming generation will inherit a thriving business.
You had mentioned three topics, with smart coatings being the third one. Smart coatings can have broad meanings. How do you define them?
At this point, smart materials and coatings are largely a playground for academia, but some practical solutions have already entered the main stream. The definition of smart materials is in the eye of the beholder. Here is a loose laundry list that seems to indicate that, if the name starts with anti- or self-, it is smart: anti-corrosion, anti-fingerprint, anti-fouling, anti-icing, anti-microbial, self-cleaning, self-healing, self-stratifying, shape memory, stimuli-responsive (electrical, thermal, light, chemical), IR-reflective, etc. At Lubrizol, we give a fair look at the promising technologies and internalize them when they deliver at the right cost.
You also mentioned the incoming generation. What advice do you have for them?
A company does not have bright future, or any future for that matter, without an incoming passionate young generation. Those crazy young people who decide to dedicate their lives to new product development and science in general, will have lifelong fun and learning, but need to get used to failure, which will happen a lot. It’s important to grow thick skin as fast as possible. I like to reference a few quotes to help keep my spirits up during challenging times. I think these quotes are appropriate for anyone:
- “Our greatest glory is not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall.” Confucius
- “Be thankful for problems. If they were less difficult, someone with less ability might have your job.” Jim Lovell, Apollo 13 Commander
- “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.” George Bernard Shaw
- “There are more quarrels smothered by just shutting your mouth, and holding it shut, than by all the wisdom in the world.” Henry Ward Beecher