Pasadena researcher receives national award

August 14, 2000

Develops Better Ways to Make Plastics

Washington D.C., August 15 - Chemist John Bercaw of Pasadena, Fla., will be honored on August 22 by the world's largest scientific society for developing better ways to make plastics and other polymers. He will receive the 2000 Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award from the American Chemical Society at its 220th national meeting in Washington, D.C.

Bercaw, Centennial Professor of Chemistry at the California Institute of Technology, focuses on catalysts that fine-tune the polymers used to make products such as plastic wrap, sports clothing, and automobile components.

"About 100 billion pounds of polyethylene and polypropylene are made each year," said Bercaw, "but the catalysts that assemble them have been developed mostly by trial and error. And they make mixtures of polymers, not pure ones."

A new kind of catalyst, whose structure surrounds atoms of various metals with those of carbon, is much more precise. By varying the shape of these catalysts, called metallocenes, Bercaw and his research group can tailor the strength and melting temperature of the polymers they assemble. One of his metallocenes is being commercialized by ExxonMobil and Dow. It produces polyethylenes ranging from elastic to hard, depending on reaction conditions.

Bercaw is also developing catalysts that can convert methane, the main component of natural gas, to liquid methanol, commonly known as wood alcohol. Methanol is used as fuel and antifreeze, as a solvent for making pharmaceuticals, and as a starting material for polymers.

"If you could pass methane over some simple catalyst along with some air [for oxygen], you could in principle turn it into methanol. Then you could just load it into a supertanker," Bercaw said.

Bercaw noted his metallocene research means he is actually an inorganic chemist - one who studies the properties and action of molecules other than the carbon of organic chemistry. "Nevertheless, I apply organic methods in my approach," he explained.
The ACS Board of Directors established the Arthur C. Cope Scholar Award in 1984 to recognize and encourage excellence in organic chemistry. Cope was a celebrated chemist and former chairman of ACS. The award consists of $5,000, a certificate and a $40,000 unrestricted research grant.

A nonprofit organization with a membership of 161,000 chemists and chemical engineers, the American Chemical Society 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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