2021 Emerging Leaders

William Hart-Cooper, Ph.D.

Created novel formulations for disinfectants and packaging that break down into harmless substances after use, protecting human health and reducing environmental pollution.

Disinfectants used in cleaning products as well as common plastic-based packaging materials pollute the environment, posing dangers to water supplies, human health and agriculture.  

William “Billy” Hart-Cooper, a research chemist with the Agricultural Research Service, has been successfully addressing these problems, creating novel formulations for disinfectants and new packaging products that break down into harmless, biodegradable substances after completing their intended use. 

“William Hart-Cooper is doing important and pioneering work that will provide us with options to use bio-based products to the benefit of our environment,” said Simon Liu, acting administrator of the Agricultural Research Service. “His commitment to developing products based on green chemistry benefits society by safeguarding the food supply and by protecting human health.”’ 

Hart-Cooper, for example, developed a new approach to formulating disinfectants that provide long-term protection against pathogens and pests while dissolving into harmless substances after being disposed in wastewater. 

He has used this formulation to create hoof balms to protect cattle from digital dermatitis, a bacterial infection causing lesions on their feet. Digital dermatitis affects 70% of cattle operations, costing producers up to $500 per incidence.   

In addition, Hart-Cooper formulated safer disinfectants for cleaning agricultural food processing equipment. He envisions extending these unique formulations to other persistent hazardous chemical classes, such as soaps, pesticides and sunscreens that are harmful to aquatic life. 

The underlying process developed by Hart-Cooper is a reversible antimicrobial. That is, two harmless ingredients become potent when they come together to do a job—killing or stopping the growth of bacteria and fungi. When the resulting compound has done its work and is dissolved in water, it breaks apart and biodegrades.  

“Billy is opening the door and showing how we can be smarter about chemistry by creating new products that are better for the users and for the planet,” said Kaj Johnson, a senior director of product development at Method, a private company that produces environmentally friendly consumer products.  

Hart-Cooper also has developed and, with a commercial partner, patented a new type of packaging containing natural ingredients found in agricultural and food waste, such as coffee pulp, almond hulls and tree cuttings. When the discarded packaging enters the waste stream, it breaks down within days, which is hundreds of times faster than similar commercial packaging currently in use.  

William Orts, a research leader at the Agricultural Research Service, noted that “in the old style of chemistry, you made a very strong bond, often between carbons, and those chemicals would stick around forever.” He said Hart-Cooper tries to make a similar molecule, except that the bonds fall apart at some critical point, so they are less environmentally hazardous.  

“Billy’s research allows some of the standard industrial agents to be replaced by equally effective natural alternatives that are designed to degrade in the environment with minimal adverse effects, thus being benign by design,” Orts said. 

For example, by putting together high concentrations of cumin seed oil and an amino acid analogue—two relatively safe molecules—they become a powerful antibiotic. But when this antibiotic washes into the wastewater system, it gets diluted, the bond falls apart and the antibiotic reverts back to being two safe molecules, Orts said.  

Hart-Cooper said he is driven by a desire to “create a framework in which we can clean up these chemicals and provide new strategies to show that something safer and better is possible. This is critical to keeping this planet safe and clean for the next generation.”   

As he was finishing his doctorate in synthetic chemistry at the University of California, Berkeley, Hart-Cooper said he realized he wanted to work in an area where he could make an immediate impact on sustainability. He said the Agricultural Research Service “was doing exactly the type of work and type of problem-solving that I was really passionate about—pollution from chemicals and plastics, and antibiotic resistance.” 

“He has been able to jump hurdle after hurdle and create a really powerful team that is generating some incredible results,” Johnson said. “This chemistry is a radical transformation from the usual approach.”  

“My philosophy is to bring in as many good people as you can that are really passionate and motivated about the work and then give them the autonomy and resources they need to be effective,” Hart-Cooper said. 

Part of his effort involves bringing in researchers with diverse backgrounds and strong skills. He works with a nonprofit organization, for example, that places youth from underserved communities in science and technology internships. 

Liu said Hart-Cooper has been a true asset to the organization by bringing “creativity and an infectious positivity” that has attracted collaborators with complementary research perspectives. 

“He has created a culture of intellectual honesty and rigor that has resulted in innovative science-based solutions to benefit society and the environment,” Liu said.