Arizona pioneer in plastics wins top chemistry award

Edwin J. Vandenberg of Fountain Hills, Ariz., will be honored March 25 by the world's largest scientific society for more than six decades of research to understand and customize plastics for applications as wide-ranging as food storage and medical devices. He will receive the 2003 Priestley Medal from the American Chemical Society at its national meeting in New Orleans. Presented for distinguished services to chemistry, it is the Society's top honor.

It's been said that petroleum is too precious to simply burn, and indeed the myriad plastics derived from oil make life hard to imagine without them: computer components, automobile dashboards and fenders, credit and identification cards, sports gear and clothing, carpeting, and anti-glare and anti-shatter coatings for glass. At age 84, Vandenberg is one of the pioneers of the field.

The polymer chemist is perhaps best known for his independent discovery of a strong, hard, impervious form of polypropylene, the plastic that makes dishwasher-safe food containers and water-resistant outdoor carpets. Called isotactic polypropylene, this plastic was also discovered in 1954 by Italian chemist and later Nobel Prize winner Guilio Natta.

At the time of his discovery Vandenberg was a research chemist at Hercules, Inc., a chemical company whose products manufacturers use to thicken paints and make paper, specialty adhesives, and other products. He started work at the Wilmington, Del.-based company in 1939, studying the chemistry of papermaking, and except for a brief stretch in the 1940s to work on smokeless powder for the war effort stayed for 43 years.

"By my senior year in high school, I had a strong resolve to become a chemist. In fact, my life goal in the yearbook was 'to be a good chemist,'" he remembered. "This was 1935, in a country still recovering from the Depression."

At Hercules Vandenberg also developed ways to form isotactic polypropylene, and his pioneering work allowed the

Contact: Allison Byrum
American Chemical Society

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