"The invention I'm proudest of is an orthopedic splint compound," said Robeson, a chemical engineer at Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. Unlike plaster, his compound is lightweight and can support and protect injuries such as cracked ribs; and unlike other plastic splints, it molds at body temperature for a custom fit.
Starting with a chain of repeating molecules called polycaprolactones, Robeson tested a variety of toughening agents and other fillers until he had a compound that a doctor or nurse could melt in hot water to a putty-like consistency and then mold gently around a patient's injury.
"It's used today for everything from covering burns, which can reduce scarring by some 95 percent, to reinforcing the spine in babies born with spina bifida," he said. "It's also used on the football field, for example as a formable shield for a quarterback's rib injury."
Robeson's orthopedic compound is only one of many polymers he has developed to solve problems. In the 1970s, while working for Union Carbide, he formulated one of the first materials for flame-retardant television cabinets after a spate of television fires. He has designed polymers for aircraft interiors and camera housings as well as switches, relays and other electrical devices.
"In general I try to understand the relationship between a polymer's structure and its properties," he said. "That's the way to predict what kinds of applications it may be good for and to optimize those properties."