Issue Date: January 9, 2006
ACS Award in Industrial Chemistry
Sponsored by the ACS Division of Business Development & Management
James C. Stevens, 52, a research fellow at Dow Chemical in Freeport, Texas, is being recognized for the discovery and commercial development of catalysts used in polyolefin production.
Stevens earned a B.A. in chemistry at the College of Wooster, in Ohio, in 1975 and a Ph.D. in inorganic chemistry at Ohio State University in 1979. He began work at Dow Central Research in Midland, Mich., later that year and moved to Dow's Plastics R&D division in Freeport in 1993.
For most of his career, Stevens has concentrated on catalysis research. Stevens' work on designed ligands for titanium- and zirconium-based catalysts led to the discovery of the "single-site, constrained-geometry catalyst system" in the late 1980s, recalls Ronald L. Yates, a senior program manager at Dow in Midland. Stevens and his colleagues refined the technology, transforming it "from a lab curiosity to a commercial reality" for the production of polyolefins, Yates says. Stevens extended the system—trademarked as Insite—to other compounds, providing Dow with the means to commercialize several new polyolefin families.
More recently, Stevens' collaboration with Symyx Technologies led to the discovery of a new class of hafnium-based single-site catalysts for the polymerization of propylene. Dow commercialized the Versify polymer product line resulting from this work in 2004.
In all, Stevens holds 75 patents—but this trove has been a mixed blessing. "The polyolefins area tends to be litigation-rich," with companies battling over which was the first to invent a technology, Stevens explains. "I've spent a significant portion of the last 15 years dealing with patent lawsuits."
Although the patent suits took up time he would have preferred to spend in the lab, Stevens was able to recover some of that lost productivity. "We were very early adopters of high-throughput R&D in the materials and catalysis field," he says. "That has been extraordinarily productive for us—much more so than for the pharmaceutical industry."
Stevens' successes have been noted far beyond Dow. Yates says that Stevens is "an internationally recognized organometallic chemist, especially in the field of transition metal catalyst chemistry for polyolefin polymerization." He adds that Stevens' work has resulted in "major commercial success" for Dow. The catalysts he helped to develop are used in the production of more than 1 billion lb of plastics and elastomers per year.
Tobin J. Marks, a catalysis chemistry professor at Northwestern University, says Stevens is "the kind of superb industrial scientist and technologist who comes along only once in a generation." Marks adds that Stevens' work "has permanently changed the face of modern polymerization science, and has led to a number of multi-billion-dollar processes that produce cleaner, greener, more recyclable, and more processible polymeric materials than ever believed possible. Moreover, due to Stevens' incisive work, the intimate mechanistic details of catalyst function are understood at a level never before thought possible for an industrial olefin-polymerization catalyst."
Stevens doesn't spend all his time in the lab, however. Four years ago, he earned his private pilot's license.
Stevens' award address will be presented before the Division of Business Development & Management, with a cosponsorship by the Division of Inorganic Chemistry.—Sophie Rovner
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