Arizona pioneer in plastics wins top chemistry award

company to become the first and later its largest producer. The trick is in its construction: the stringing together of individual units of propylene, a three-carbon molecule derived from petroleum. Two of the carbons link up with those of other units to form a chain, while the third of each unit juts up above or below.

If the third carbon is randomly placed on either side of the chain, the resulting polypropylene is soft and rubbery. Vandenberg discovered construction methods that always place the third carbon on the same side. With one side of the chain bulkier than the other, isotactic polypropylene bends into uniform coils that can pack together. The result is a polypropylene form with the same chemical formula as the randomly placed carbons but with dramatically different properties. Its crystalline structure does not melt in boiling water; it has the ability to form stiff, sturdy fibers; and it has a resistance to solvents and other chemicals.

To compel the third carbons to consistently stay in the same position, Vandenberg designed a variety of catalysts, the exquisitely orchestrated construction workers of chemistry. Over succeeding decades he refined that knowledge with new discoveries. Among them were ways to control the length and branching of polymer chains, as well as what is now the most common route to make phenol, a chemical used to make products as diverse as plywood, automotive components, epoxy resins and disinfectants.

Vandenberg grew up in the years between World War I and II in Hawthorne, N.J., where his father owned a feed store. As a boy he was intrigued by the violin as well as chemistry, studying music in school while running experiments of his own in a home laboratory.

After retiring from Hercules in 1982 Vandenberg joined the faculty of Arizona State University. In the last dozen years his research achievements have taken a new turn: polymers that have biomedical applications, particularly for implants, a

Contact: Allison Byrum
American Chemical Society

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