IBM’s Jeannette Garcia is making the world a better place through chemistry

From revolutionizing plastics recycling to shifting chemistry modeling, her work has cross-industry, global impact

This story is part of Big Thinkers, a series of profiles on business leaders transforming industries with bold ideas.

“One of my interns left a stack of burned CDs in the lab,” Jeannette M. Garcia told Industrious. “I grabbed one and cut it into pieces, and added a catalyst to break it down.”

She’d done a similar experiment earlier with plastic water bottles. Garcia has been experimenting with breaking down commodity plastics since completing her PhD. Her goal: a new technology for recycling plastic waste.

IBM initiated a water bottle recycling project around 2008, four years before Garcia joined IBM as a postdoc. In 2013, she became a research staff member. Garcia and an IBM Research team have since expanded and scaled her initial experiments into a new recycling process to transform old plastic.

Today, Garcia serves as the Global Lead for Quantum Applications in Quantum Chemistry and Science for IBM Research.

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“Environmental issues have always been a passion for me,” she said. “The current ways we recycle are inefficient. The rates are less than ten percent in the US, and even worse in certain countries. Overall, it’s a massive problem.”

Garcia grew up in Seattle. Her mother was a passionate environmentalist and recycler.

“We did things a certain way,” she said, “and I thought this was what all people did.” Her mother collected rainwater to water plants with, and taught the family the principles of conserving energy.

“We always recycled,” Garcia said. “I remember her sorting things out—she still does that. We had five different bins. Everything was rinsed before disposal.”

Garcia not only grew up with a set of beliefs about leaving the earth in a better condition than she found it—she saw it as something so valuable that she’s oriented her career around it.

The first time she took chemistry was in college.

“I really liked it, I did really well. It still wasn’t The Thing,” she said.

But when she progressed onto organic chemistry, “that’s when all the lights went on.”

She loved it—and also found its visual nature and abstractions highly appealing.

Garcia’s professor, fresh out of a post-doctorate, would share chemical reactions with the class with one part erased. The students would have to fill in what was missing. For Garcia, this work felt highly relevant.

“You have this beautiful 3D structure of a molecule,” she said. “How do you make it? How do you take it apart?”

She started working in a lab, and once she got into research, didn’t want to stop. She went on to graduate school and then for her PhD. It’s there she began developing catalysts for chemical reactions.

IBM Researcher Jeanette Garcia examines new plastic powder made from old CDs

At the time, IBM was working on a similar project, applying the same catalysts to breaking down water bottles. The potential to apply catalysts she was familiar with to recycling plastic is what initially drew her to IBM.

A new catalyst for the technology was announced in February 2019.

VolCat is a catalytic chemical process that can turn PET—a type of plastic used not just in water bottles but also food packaging and polyester clothing—into a renewable resource.

“The process involves putting one into a reactor that’s like an industrial scale pressure cooker. Before closing it, you put in a catalyst—the special sauce, we call it,” she said.

The cooker is sealed, and its contents heated, which selectively breaks down its components. Other plastics in the mix—like the bottle’s plastic cap, which is made out of different components—can be filtered out and recycled down the line.

“It could have implications for changing the way we deal with plastic waste,” Garcia said.

More than 300 million metric tons of plastic is produced annually around the globe, and ~10 percent is composed of PET. VolCat’s aim is to use chemicals, heat and pressure to reduce that amount.

The ultimate goal, Garcia said, is a fully closed loop: 100% efficient recycling, which would, in turn, transform the way plastic is manufactured and discarded.

Aerial view of IBM Research in Almaden in San Jose, California—today, Garcia’s homebase

Today, Garcia’s job at IBM is unifying IBM Research’s work with quantum applications.

The experimental team at IBM Research works closely with computational scientists to develop catalysts and figure out how a reaction is occurring so that it can be harnessed.

“The exciting part now is that we’ve started to think about how to model molecules using quantum computers,” she said. And that’s very appealing on numerous levels.

“Quantum computers fundamentally act and behave differently,” she said. “Getting in at an early stage in research allows us to study new ways to model molecules.”

That ability could have an enormous, long-term impact.

“It would change the field of chemistry,” she said.

She’s also excited about how quantum computing is bringing different fields together, from chemists to engineers and computer scientists.

“That’s what I’m excited about currently,” she said. “I’m hoping we can apply that work perhaps to the problems of chemical recycling, but also more—to problems in many industries.”

Right now, that work is still in the earliest of stages. But though it’s early days, she has an intuition, “from a scientific standpoint,” that it will work.

Scientists have been classically simulating models for decades. Now, with the addition of quantum computers, Garcia and team are using those classical simulations as benchmarks, and asking what processes quantum computers could take on.

Garcia spoke to Industrious from her office at the IBM Research lab in Almaden Valley, California. She sat in front of a white board filled with notations.

“This is how we model molecules using quantum computers,” she explained. “The chemical right there is called thalidomide, which has a notorious past.”

The drug was prescribed as a sedative and anti-morning sickness drug in the late 1950s in Germany. It caused numerous birth defects before its eventual ban in 1962.

“One of the reasons I use that molecule as an example is that it took us 50 years to completely understand why that happened,” she said. “50 years of theory, of experiments.”

In this current, early research stage, the team maps out molecules according to their orbitals directly onto qubits to simulate their chemistry.

“It’s so different,” Garcia said. “Things will come out of that we don’t even know yet. That’s what we’re exploring here.”