Pick a shampoo or conditioner from Walmart. Any Walmart.
Even though the Colonial Chemical name is not on the label, there’s a good chance the molecules are from the South Pittsburg, Tennessee-based company, which is home to 16 current University of Tennessee at Chattanooga graduates—nine of them with undergraduate degrees in chemistry or chemical engineering.
In 2021, when UTC needed to replace an aging device called an ultra-performance liquid chromatography-tandem with mass spectrometer (UPLC-MS), an expensive apparatus for analyzing molecules, Colonial Chemical chipped in about $55,000 of the estimated $170,000 cost.
The device determines what molecules and their concentration are in samples provided by Colonial Chemical, which specializes in developing surfactants most common in detergents, shampoos and soap. Those molecules are then sold to manufacturing companies.
Surfactants—soaps, in Colonial’s case—are chemical compounds that decrease the surface tension or interfacial tension between two liquids, a liquid and a gas, or a liquid and a solid. Surfactants function as emulsifiers, wetting agents, detergents, foaming agents or dispersants.
“Colonial has been a great partner for the chemistry program,” said Dr. Gretchen Potts, head of UTC’s biology, geology and environmental science department and UC Foundation professor. “Several of our graduates are employees, and they have collaborated on analyses with Dr. [Steven] Symes,” a UTC chemistry professor. “The connections from that relationship resulted in financial support for the purchase of a new UPLC-MS. The instrument is an excellent tool for analysis and as an undergraduate program, chemistry is fortunate to have it available in our labs for use by our students and faculty.”
Among Colonial Chemical’s UTC graduates are Jason Santola (2005 chemistry), Andrew Lawrence (1995 master’s in psychology: industrial/organization), Paul Moreland (2017 biology), Megan Blevins (2016 chemistry, 2019 chemical engineering), Kacee Hedrick (2020 chemical engineering), Katie Fox (2020 human resource management), Zechariah Avello (2016 chemistry), Carmen O’Hagan (2017 communication), Madison Holt (2017 chemistry: biochemistry), Derek Phillips (1999 psychology), Robin Williams (2018 business administration: finance), Corey Barker (2016 chemistry), Krista Carson (2021 chemistry), Molly McEnery (2014 chemistry), Jordan Taylor (2020 chemistry) and Hunter Lowery (2021 biology).
Symes said the UPLC-MS is a powerful instrument with various applications, including allowing Erlanger Health System doctors to analyze metabolites in the bloodstream for early cancer detection.
“We need a sensitive instrument like this,” Symes said. “Students get research training on an industry workhorse instrument, and a drug-testing lab uses this for athletes. Students learn the ins and outs and how to set it up.”
When chemistry professor Dr. Keenan Dungey, who heads the chemistry and physics department, came to UTC three years ago, he found a spectrometer that was 15 years old and required frequent cobbling.
The new device is “huge for us but smaller than some,” Dungey said, adding the technology can take a tanker-truck load of product and change the reactants to make a new product.
Zack Avello, Colonial Chemical’s analytical chemist manager in the research and development lab, graduated from UTC in 2016 and moved to Memphis before returning to the area and taking a job at Colonial Chemical through a Potts connection.
“There are plenty of us who came from UTC. It’s a nice feeder system that produces awesome students. That relationship is very important to us,” Avello said.
Dr. Robert Coots retired from Colonial in 2019 after nearly 20 years and now teaches a general chemistry lab at UTC.
He said the UTC relationship with Colonial bloomed through university contacts with professors like Drs. Doug Kutz and current faculty member Thomas R. Rybolt, whose wife played against Coots and his wife in a local tennis league.
Among the UTC graduates at Colonial are O’Hagan, a regional sales manager and a 2017 communication graduate responsible for Colonial sales in eight northwestern states. Last year, she was president of the Marion County Chamber of Commerce at age 25.
Coots noted that among UTC’s graduates, Avello runs the analytics in the R&D lab, Santola is head of quality control and McEnery was an intern and now heads the formulations group.
“Those are the kind of things Colonial benefits from and that we hope to continue,” Coots said.
Dr. Lucas Moore, vice president of research and development at Colonial Chemical, said the 16 UTC (he’s from the University of Alabama) graduates work in his department and in engineering, human resources, quality control, purchasing, sales and safety—“across the whole company. … We use UTC’s UPLC mass spectrometer. It’s very expensive. It doesn’t make sense for us to have one, so we pay a rental fee” for the one it helped buy UTC. “We can make new molecules and sell these products to companies that make shampoos, detergents, conditioners, etcetera.”
Coots said Colonial’s fingerprints can be found universally. “Surfactants are Colonial’s main products and they have a lot of them.” He explained that “surfactants” is a contraction for the term surface active agents. “Surfactants are used for any product in cleaning of any kind, anywhere from the gamut of cleaning airplanes to shampoo or cleaning chicken plants. They also are very helpful in metal lubricants for activities like cutting, drilling and forming metal. They cut down on friction.”
Moore sums up Colonial’s commercial influence. “When you go to Walmart or Costco, you won’t see Colonial’s name on the products, but we’re in soaps, conditioners, personal care wipes, car wash detergents, oil and gas agents, paint emulsifiers,” he said.
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