As it turns out, tinkering can form the basis of a highly successful career. At least that’s the way things worked out for Rodney Banks, a chemist at the water treatment firm Nalco who will receive the Perkin Medal at a dinner in his honor on Sept. 20 at the Hyatt Hotel in Philadelphia. The annual award, from the Society of Chemical Industry, America International Group, recognizes outstanding work in applied chemistry.
Banks has been at Nalco for 30 years and is now a research fellow, the firm’s highest position for an active research scientist. His work led to the invention and commercialization of Nalco’s Trasar technology for monitoring and controlling water quality in boilers and industrial cooling systems.
Trasar technology and other advances based on Banks’s 23 patents have generated more than $1 billion in sales for Nalco, the company estimates. His patent legacy is likely to generate significantly more revenue from new customers once Ecolab completes its $8.1 billion acquisition of Nalco later this year.
The current generation of the technology, 3D Trasar, has also helped save more than 345 billion gal of water since 2004, enough to serve 13.7 million people over the course of a year. In 2008, the technology received a Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award for making industrial treatment of water more energy efficient and less hazardous.
Puttering in his basement shop led to Banks’s first fluorometer, which was intended to monitor an inert fluorescent tracer formulated into specialized water treatment chemicals. Subsequent developments allowed a quick read on water chemistry levels and the alignment of those readings to automated dosing systems to control mineral scaling and corrosion. Still further refinements allowed monitoring and control of microbial fouling. The Traser system made obsolete both periodic testing by hand of boilers and cooling towers and manual addition of water treatment chemicals to them.
Banks didn’t come to specialize in water treatment intentionally, and his career path owes as much to happenstance as to inclination. He says his love of chemistry comes from his father, an organic chemist who worked with jet fuels in the 1950s and early 1960s. Banks also had a chemistry set, like so many others of his generation, and conducted experiments under the watchful eye of his father.
“I was born with an inclination to tinker,” Banks tells C&EN. One of his hobbies is working on cars, and he once got ahold of an old Porsche just so he could tinker with it. A role model for him as a boy, he says, was Thomas Edison, “because of his ability to invent and develop mechanical things.”
Over the years, Banks also became enamored of electronics hardware, microcontrollers, and chip-embedded operating software. And because he liked to take a mechanical approach to things, he chose to study physical chemistry rather than organic chemistry as an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
After earning his bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1975, he headed for the West Coast. In 1980 he received a Ph.D. in inorganic/physical chemistry from the University of California, Berkeley, under the tutelage of Nobel Laureate Glenn T. Seaborg, who himself received the Perkin Medal in 1957. Banks’s specialty was actinides and radiochemistry, and after receiving his degree he worked for a year at Argonne National Laboratory, near Chicago.
But all actinide elements are radioactive, and to continue in the area would have limited him to work in government labs, Banks says. Fortunately, the skills he learned as a chemist were transferable. So when a job opened up at nearby Nalco doing X-ray analysis of customer samples, he applied. The firm hired him in 1981.
Banks did work in fuel treatment, analytical field testing, and circuit board chemicals. But he hit his stride in 1986 when Nalco offered him a position developing field sensors for water treatment. “Nalco never did that before,” he says. “It was a perfect fit for me. It allowed me to use my chemical training and my fascination with mechanical things. And I could tinker.” The effort led to the development of Trasar technology.
Banks concentrated on the hardware and instrumentation side. Others, including Nalco organic chemist John E. Hoots, worked on the chemistry. The cost of the first-generation fluorometer that would underpin the Trasar system was high. Banks subsequently developed an industrial fluorometer that was 600 times smaller and 10 times less expensive than the original instrument with the help of light-emitting diodes and filters originally developed for fiber-optic communications.
To build the Trasar sensing and dosing systems, Banks worked with engineering firm Tecnova. Terry Coleman Sr., president of the firm, says Banks “is very knowledgeable. He was good at identifying the optical spectrum of filters. And he figured out exactly what needed to be done to make the commercial instrument a success.” About 18,000 Trasar systems are now in place worldwide.
Manian Ramesh, Nalco’s chief technology officer, says he admires Banks both as a scientist and as a human being. In addition to his work on Trasar, Banks is a mentor to a number of up-and-coming scientists at Nalco. “We have what we call ‘Rodney circles’ at the company. Scientists on staff seek him out for advice,” Ramesh says.
Banks’s impact extends beyond Nalco to the entire water treatment industry, Ramesh adds. “He has changed what was an art into a science.” ◾