Phillips' first plastics - C&EN Global Enterprise (ACS Publications)

Nov 29, 1999 - Eng. News Archives ... When Banks and Hogan began working together, World War II had come to a close, and with peace came the end of th...
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m mer was tough—it was stiffer, harder, and more heat-resistant than anything else on the market. John Mihm, Phillips' senior vice presipylene and a propane carrier into the dent for downstream technology and pipe, and waited for the expected low project development and the first speaker molecular weight hydrocarbons. The at the ceremony, described the innovatest was a success in more ways than tion—particularly the polypropylene one: The nickel oxide had produced the patent—as a "company-maker." The find desired liquids, but the chromium had "has contributed far more to the compaproduced something unexpected. Out ny in royalties than any other business," of the reactor spilled a strange white he said. The two new plastics reshaped substance: crystalline polypropylene, a the petroleum company, opening the doors to a new industry. new polymer. Hogan and Banks didn't know the "Banks and Hogan's discoveries literally remade our surroundings, making them safer, and creating what is today a multibillion-dollar industry," said Ed Wasserman, ACS president The plastics are used to make things such as automobile bumpers and fuel tanks, wire insulation, food packaging, outdoor furniture, tubing and catheters, toys, and medicine bottles. The black canisters that held thefilmused to illustrate this article have HDPE stamped under their triangular recycling symbols, as do many other common goods. At left, Hogan stands with the young Marlex's first major use architects of "Polyville"; above, Mlhm was in a toy called the Hula (left), Hogan, Wasserman, and Parker stand with the plaque recognizing Hoop. The demand for MarHogan and Banks' work. lex soared as the hoop craze spread during the late 1950s. scope of their find at It lasted long enough for Phillips to imtime, but they realized prove the production process and expand that they had something the product grades. The two researchers' luck was only special. That same afternoon, the two research- temporary, however, and soon their serers set to work on the endipity gave way to misfortune. Three polypropylene patent ap- separate patent applications, each on the plication, hoping to thwart potential catalytic polymerization of propylene at low pressure to create polypropylene, competitors. Hogan and Banks now devoted all of were filed between 1951 and 1953 by their time to their plastic. They worked to three separate laboratories. Battles beproduce an ethylene polymer that could tween Phillips and the U.S. Patent & be made with their chromium catalyst. Trademark Office, the court system, and Polyethylene was not new at the time of an increasing number of companies left the Phillips polypropylene discovery in ownership up in the air. As Banks and 1951. In fact, it had been around since Hogan waited for resolution, professor 1930, first produced by British company Karl Ziegler of Germany's Max Planck InImperial Chemical Industries. The pro- stitute and Italian scientist Giulio Natta, a duction process involved the application professor at Milan Polytechnic, the first of extreme pressure, which resulted in a to publish their findings, were credited low-density polymer. Hogan and Banks with the discovery and received the 1963 developed a process that required much Nobel Prize in Chemistry. It was not until less pressure and produced high-density 1983 that an appellate court settled the polyethylene (HDPE). Marketed under dispute: Hogan, Banks, and Phillips Pethe brand name Marlex in 1954, the poly- troleum deserved the patent. The two

Phillips' first plastics


rior to 1951, not many people had ever heard of Bartlesville, Okla. The name may still be unfamiliar, but the plastics invented in this little spot seemingly out in the middle of nowhere are known just about everywhere. Bartlesville has earned its place on the map—and in your medicine cabinet, your refrigerator, your garage, and your car. In 1946, Robert L Banks and J. Paul Hogan began a research collaboration that would soon make history. And on Nov. 12, the American Chemical Society recognized the historical significance of their work—and their laboratory—by designating the site as a National Historic Chemical Landmark. Hogan, who resides in Bartlesville, was on hand for the ceremony. Banks died in 1989. When Banks and Hogan

began working together, World War II had come to a close, and with peace came the end of the escalated wartime demand for the oil needed to fuel the American war machine. Phillips Petroleum, searching for ways to expand its product line and reclaim declining income, assigned research chemists Hogan and Banks the task of finding new ways to convert propylene and ethylene, products of the natural gas refining process, into gasoline components. The two turned their attention to catalysts. In June 1951, they set up an experiment designed to modify the catalyst nickel oxide by adding small amounts of chromium oxide. They packed a pipe with catalyst, fed pro-



acs n e w s chemists received the Society of Chemical Industry's Perkin Medal in 1987, just two years before Banks' death. Phillips Executive Vice President for Downstream Technology Bill Z. Parker gave special recognition to the dozens of middle-school students who attended the ceremony. "Having them here to share in this occasion is an excellent way to pass on an appreciation for science to future generations." After a brief round of applause for the young scientists, Parker concluded the ceremony. The attendees then adjourned to the cafeteria, where the students from nearby Central and Madison middle schools displayed their chemistry prowess through a display that included a sixfoot-tall giraffe, a model town, and a host of character statues that would have challenged even the imagination of Jim Henson, all of which were made using polymeric materials— including polyolefins, polyvinyl chloride, and

Scenes from Bartlesvllle: The Frank Phillips Tower (above) Is one company building downtown; a community arts center (right) Is being built near a Phillips oil derrick.

the polysaccharides cellulose and starch. The aspiring chemists described their work, accepting praise and encouragementfromthe chemistry veterans. Following a safety video describing the sights and sounds one may encounter at a chemical plant—including the sirens used in anticipation of Oklahoma's indigenous threat, the tornado—a few of the visitors were off to see where history was made: Banks and Hogan's laboratory. "About the only thing that's still the same is the rafters," joked Hogan, now 80 years old, when asked how his former digs had changed. The building, No. 84-G, was never very big, but its role in the company's history is enormous. 'The discoveries that Bob and I made in 1951," Hogan said moments before pulling the drape that covered his plaque, "have been sometimes described as serendipitous. But I am not willing to say they were accidental. Careful work leading to unexpected results is not blind luck or chance. I came to regard research as discovering God's secrets and thinking God's thoughts as he revealed them in sometimes surprising ways. This is good fortune, not just good luck." Kevin MacDermott

Guide to December local section meetings featuring ACS tour speakers As a service to society members and the public, from fall to spring, C&EN publishes monthly guides to ACS tour speaker appearances at upcoming meetings. For general information about these events, which are open to all interested persons, Meeting city Local section

Date Topic code

Meeting city Local section

Date Topic code

Akron, Ohio 15/D Akron M. Sibbald, (330) 796-4235

Valdosta, Ga. Southwest Georgia S. Goel, (912)384-5101


13/C Boston Northeastern M. Cashman, (800) 872-2054

York, Pa. Southeast Pennsylvania J. Foresman (717)815-1384


consult the alphabetical listing of cities and their corresponding local sections along with the topic/speaker key. For additional information, contact the local section or the ACS Speaker Service at (202) 872-4613. Topic/speaker key: A.

Applying Computational Chemistry to Understanding Linear Free Energy Relationships. G. Ramini, U.S. Army Chemical & Biological Defense Command


Odyssey of a Chemist in Today's Global Market in Developing Enviromentally Sound and Cost-Effective Processes. J. Singh, Optima Chemical Group


Structure and Dynamics of Chiral Ion Pairs. T. Pochapsky, Brandeis U


Technology of Biomedical Devices. D. Smith, U of Akron, and M. Askew, Summa Health Systems

Other local section meeting in December For further information about the following event, call the local section contact at the telephone number given.


Meeting city Local section

Meeting site Date/time


Contact Telephone No.

Camden, N.J. Philadelphia

Rutgers U 11/10 AM

Chemistry Demonstrations and Hands-On Activities. Various speakers

L. Harper (215)382-1589