Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Molecular Sieve Zeolites: An Industrial Research Success Story: The Discovery and Development of Zeolites and Molecular Sieves Depended on Many Factors, Not Least of Which Was Management's Commitment to Support Long-Range Innovative Discovery Research with No Guarantee of Commercial Success

Academic journal article Research-Technology Management

Molecular Sieve Zeolites: An Industrial Research Success Story: The Discovery and Development of Zeolites and Molecular Sieves Depended on Many Factors, Not Least of Which Was Management's Commitment to Support Long-Range Innovative Discovery Research with No Guarantee of Commercial Success

Article excerpt

My field is in silicate chemistry and materials, specifically in zeolite molecular sieves, a class of industrial materials used widely throughout the petroleum refining, petrochemical and chemical industries.

The roots of molecular sieves go back to 1756, when a Swedish mineralogist by the name of Cronstedt first discovered intriguing crystals in nature that seemed to froth or boil when heated in a blowpipe flame. Cronstedt called this new mineral a "zeolite," derived from the Greek words, "zeo" meaning "to boil" and "lithos" meaning "a stone."

In the decades that followed, a number of mineralogists and chemists studied and described the properties of various zeolite minerals, including their remarkable sieve-like ability to separate molecules on the basis of size. This sieving property led McBain in the early 1930s to coin the term "molecular sieve," and more significantly, enticed the first giant of molecular sieve science, Professor Richard M. Barrer of Imperial College, London, to begin a lifetime of pioneering research in zeolite science in the mid 1930s. Of key importance were Barrer's descriptions in the 1940s of gas separations with zeolite minerals that had commercial potential--descriptions that set the stage for Union Carbide's later role in synthetic zeolite discovery.

An Idyllic Research Atmosphere

I shall turn now to the Tonawanda, New York research laboratory of the Linde Air Products Division of Union Carbide Corporation in the late 1940s. The Tonawanda Laboratory presented a nearly idyllic atmosphere for creative scientific research. The scientists were of the highest quality, led and motivated by directors and leaders who were focused on discovery and innovation, expected it and rewarded it. More than a half dozen successful new businesses were spawned for Union Carbide from a decade of pioneering research at the Tonawanda Laboratory.

Enter Bob Milton, a young physical chemist, there only two years when management challenged him to seek new methods of separating air into oxygen and nitrogen, the major products of Linde. Milton was drawn to Barrer's pioneering reports on adsorption separations with zeolite minerals. However, since zeolite minerals were rare and unavailable in practical quantities, he shifted focus in mid-1949 to an exploratory program to synthesize zeolites in the laboratory. By year end, he had discovered a new and practical method to make several novel synthetic zeolites, including two that were to gain commercial prominence, called zeolites A and X.

In 1952, Milton was joined by a young inorganic chemist, Don Breck, who continued the discovery and study of more synthetic zeolites including one called zeolite Y, which was destined to become one of the cornerstones of the petroleum refining industry.

By 1954, largely through the championship of Bob Milton, Linde had announced it was entering the business of manufacturing and selling molecular sieve zeolites as a new class of industrial adsorbents, and in 1959 as hydrocarbon conversion catalysts--a remarkable example of discovery to commercialization of a new business venture in just five years.

When I joined the research staff at Tonawanda in 1952, my sister Joan, also a chemist, had already been there a year. Two years later, my sister Jane, another chemist, also joined the Tonawanda research staff.

I remember that the head of the personnel department was intrigued by the fact that three sisters were all chemists and all working at the Tonawanda laboratory at one time! He used to give us banks of psychological tests, thinking he would find some strange trait that turned us all into chemists. We could have told him that it was probably due to a superb high school chemistry teacher at Holy Angels Academy, Sr. St. Mary, who made chemistry exciting, and an equally superb chemistry teacher at D'Youville College, Dorothea Fitzgerald, Ph.D., who built on that excitement. …

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