Health & wellness

After coma, teen invents eco-friendly plastic from potatoes

BOYLSTON — Late one night in April of last year, Evan Solomonides, 17, was driving home from his girlfriend’s house worrying about his troubled science experiment. He couldn’t get it to work, and the state science fair was coming up in a week.

The last thing he remembers is a deer leaping in front of his car. He swerved to avoid it but smashed into a tree.

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“I was very, very, not OK,” said Solomonides, who spent a month in a coma. He suffered a traumatic brain injury — “a severe bruising insult to the brain,” said his father, Dr. John Solomonides, a physician at UMass Memorial Medical Center specializing in internal medicine and pediatrics. He also had a collapsed lung and broken collar bone. “There was lots of uncertainty,” said his father. When Evan slowly emerged from the coma, he couldn’t speak or use his left side.

A doctor advised him against returning to school full time in the fall, saying only time would tell “if and when I could ever do it,” Solomonides said. He didn’t agree. “I was like, ‘Nah, I can do it,’ ” he recalled.

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He was released from the hospital on June 6, and spent the summer doing intensive physical, occupational, and speech therapy. Nearly three months later, he returned to classes — full time.

“I do my absolute best when someone challenges me,” said Solomonides, then a junior at Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science in Worcester.

A little more than a year after the accident, a fully recovered (and just graduated) Solomonides, 18, is pleased to report he got his science experiment to work, and took top honors this spring at the Massachusetts State Science & Engineering Fair with the product he invented: an eco-friendly plastic, made from potatoes, which can be used as a sustainable building insulation.

Evan Solomonides has a patent pending on his discovery, a plastic made from potato starch.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Evan Solomonides has a patent pending on his discovery, a plastic made from potato starch.

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In June he represented Massachusetts in the US National BioGENEius Competition in Philadelphia, which recognizes innovation in biotechnology, and wasted no time “hitting the trade show floor” in search of investors to take his product to market, according to Robert K. Coughlin, president and CEO of MassBio, a Cambridge biotechnology trade association, which partners with the BioGENEius competition. Coughlin described Solomonides’s work as “cutting-edge.”

“He attacked his recovery with the same passion he attacked his science,” said Maria Borowski, one of his teachers.

Solomonides has strong feelings about how the next part of the story gets told. “One of my goals during my recovery was to make it so that the accident wouldn’t be the most important thing about me,” he said in an e-mail. “My recovery from the accident is an incredible story, but it is not who I am as a person.”

He is an earnest, funny, and unusual 18-year-old, the unusualness underscored by the fact that he wore a dress shirt and tie to a recent interview with a reporter. He describes himself as “an incredibly competitive person” who has “scores of personal [and professional] goals.”

He injects a clarification: “I’m not a nerd,” he said, taking mock offense at a perceived suggestion that he was. “I’m mostly a nerd. I was a two-sport athlete.”

His mother, Deana , said he was a voracious reader as a boy. “We couldn’t keep him supplied with enough books.” One of them, a book about the solar system called “Cosmos: A Field Guide,” changed his life.

“It was a pivotal moment that made me decide that the field I wanted to work in for the rest of my life was astrophysics,” said Solomonides, who’ll attend Cornell University in the fall, where he’ll major in astrophysics.

He attended Massachusetts Academy of Math and Science for his final two years of high school, and in his junior year was assigned an independent research project. “I thought of four or five different astrophysics projects, but they all would have required about $20 million,” said Solomonides. “That wasn’t quite within my budget at the time.”

”One of my goals during my recovery was to make it so that the accident wouldn’t be the most important thing about me. My recovery from the accident is an incredible story, but it is not who I am as a person,” said Evan Solomonides.

Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

”One of my goals during my recovery was to make it so that the accident wouldn’t be the most important thing about me. My recovery from the accident is an incredible story, but it is not who I am as a person,” said Evan Solomonides.

But he was also interested in materials science, and thought it would be “so cool” to discover a new material. An article about bioplastics in Scientific American inspired him to try to make his own plastic derived from organic materials. It was a tall order, because it involved bonding small molecules in a long polymer chain.

He decided to work with starches, “which are already fairly large polymer chains and would be more efficient,” he said. Potato starch fit within his budget.

His big breakthrough came by accident. He’d heated a batch of plastic in a pot on the stove using amylose and amylopectin from potato starch, glycerin, and acetic acid. He wanted to see when it would melt, then went to fold his laundry and forgot about it. (“Children should not be left unsupervised with stoves,” he remarked dryly.)

When he remembered, he tore down the stairs, expecting to find the mixture in flames. But the surface of the plastic was cool enough to touch. It had “high thermal resistivity,” he concluded, which led him to believe it had potential as an insulating material that would be more ecologically friendly than petroleum-based products. “I wanted to have a little less pollution in the world,” said Solomonides. He believes it has commercial and industrial potential, and hopes it could be used in the developing world because it’s inexpensive to produce.

It’s also “selectively biodegradable,” he said: If it stays dry, it can exist indefinitely, but in contact with water it biodegrades in about three weeks.

His car accident interfered with the 2014 Massachusetts State Science & Engineering Fair, and put his life on hold for four months while he slowly regained the ability to swallow, speak, and walk, first in the hospital, then in a rehabilitation facility.

“I remember thinking it wasn’t real. It was a bad dream,” said Solomonides. “As soon as I figured out it wasn’t a dream, I worked harder than I‘ve worked in my life. I hadn’t done a lot of the stuff I wanted to do in life.”

His residual problems are minor — scars where an incision was made for a chest tube, more scars on his temple from broken glass, and from where a hole was drilled for a device that monitored pressure in his skull. “His arm and leg still aren’t back to perfect,” said his father, “but only a parent could tell.”

Solomonides isn’t looking back. He was a little disappointed when he didn’t win the US National BioGENEius Competition but is thrilled about his prospects. He has a patent pending and some promising leads on investors. He’s identified a handful of building material companies that he believes could be a good match for his product.

“It’s proving to be a little bit difficult,” he acknowledged. “I have no professional credentials. It’s hard to call up and say, ‘Hey, I’m about to start college!’ ”

But he’s optimistic. “The second I get somebody important on the phone,” he said, “I can make them understand why this matters.”

Linda Matchan can be reached at linda.matchan@globe.com.
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