Houston researchers receive national award

March 21, 2000

Developed new carpet and textile fiber in record time

Five chemists and chemical engineers with Shell Chemical Co. in Houston, Texas -- Juan P. Arhancet, Hoe H. Chuah, Donald R. Kelsey, Joseph B. Powell and Paul R. Weider -- will be honored on March 28 by the world's largest scientific society for leading the 80-person effort that created a new carpet and textile fiber in record time. They will receive the American Chemical Society Award for Team Innovation at the Society's national meeting in San Francisco.

The team brought the fiber to market in just three years. "We were certain fairly early on that Corterra® was better than polypropylene," a polymer common in commercial carpets, explained Powell. "But to have economic play, it had to be able to compete with nylon in the residential market."

Chuah, who with Kelsey devised synthesis and processing methods, said the fiber has excellent elastic recovery and bulk, feels soft, yet resists stains, abrasions and static buildup.

A petroleum-derived compound called 1,3 propanediol, (PDO) the new fiber has three carbon atoms compared to polyester's two to four. "The odd number of carbons conveys the unique properties," said Powell. "It makes the polymer more stable so it will spring back to its original configuration."

"That means that if you move your furniture, for example, you can just brush the marks away and it won't leave a heavy footprint," Chuah explained. "The polymer itself also has natural stain resistance that doesn't shampoo away like a stain-protection coating can. Corterra® doesn't have many acid-base sites, so you can wash away even stains like Kool-Aid."

Chemists knew for years that PDO might make an interesting polymer, but no one had found a way to make it economically. At "a speed unparalleled, I think," said Powell, the Shell researchers started with "a great business opportunity but no way to get there" in 1993 and achieved commercial production in 1996.

Research teams worked in 18-hour shifts to solve problems: an intermediate reaction so unstable it often reacted with itself instead of progressing to form PDO, for example. They learned to control the fiber-spinning process in the laboratory instead of building an expensive and time-consuming pilot plant. In 1999, Shell opened a plant in Geismar, La., to produce 160 million pounds of PDO per year.

The ACS Award for Team Innovation is sponsored by the ACS Committee on Corporation Associates.

A nonprofit organization with a membership of 161,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society www.acs.org publishes scientific journals and databases, convenes major research conferences, and provides educational, science policy and career programs in chemistry. Its main offices are in Washington, D.C., and Columbus, Ohio.

American Chemical Society

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