Plastics Industry Honors Williamsburg, VA Professor for Research in Knight Ridder Tribune

William Starnes

February 2, 2002 - Williamsburg, VA

By Brian Whitson

 

Bill Starnes just wants to say one word to you: plastics.

While that might remind some of the famous line in the 1967 movie "The Graduate," Starnes really does like to talk about plastics -- specifically polyvinyl chloride, or PVC.

"Plastics show up just about everywhere," said Starnes, the Gottwald Professor of Chemistry, an endowed position, at the College of William and Mary.

"There's a large number of commercial materials," he said. "It is an enormous industry."

When Dustin Hoffman's character in "The Graduate" was being advised about the "great future in plastics," Starnes was already well on his way to becoming a leader in the industry.

Starnes was recognized last month for his plastics research when he was selected by the Plastics Pioneers Association to its history and artifacts program. The honor means Starnes joins an elite group of people -- less than 1,000 individuals in the world -- who have had the greatest impact on the history of plastics. The list is basically a who's who of the plastics industry.

"It was quite a surprise," Starnes said. "I had no idea this was even being considered."

A 1955 graduate of Virginia Tech, Starnes received his Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Georgia Tech in 1960. After graduation, Starnes went on to work in Texas at what is now Exxon Mobil Oil and in 1973 joined Bell Laboratories in Murray Hill, N.J. At Bell, Starnes started researching ways to preserve polymers, the synthetic substances found in plastics.

Starnes spent four years as head of the chemistry and life sciences department at Polytechnic University in Brooklyn, N.Y. -- the school where polymer science got started in the United States -- and arrived at William and Mary in 1989.

At William and Mary, Starnes is most known for his research focusing on the degradation, stabilization and the fire retardance of plastics, specifically PVC materials.

"We've done some things that I think are really significant," Starnes said.

Most people associate PVC with the white plumbing pipes found in homes, but the material is the second-largest volume plastic produced in the world, Starnes said. It is used in everything from car-seat covers and shower curtains to plastic covering on telephone wires.

Over the years, Starnes has worked with colleagues and students on ways to make vinyl products more fire-resistant and smoke-retardant. He's also worked on ways to keep PVC materials from thermally degrading, such as a clear packaging cover turning yellow over time.

He and his colleagues and students at the college are working on safer ways to stabilize PVC materials, or allow them to retain their properties so they don't break or tear as easy. For example, Starnes said, some of the past stabilizers added to PVC materials contained toxic heavy metals. He said they've discovered materials that can be used as excellent thermal stabilizers that are not toxic.

"We're very excited about that," Starnes said.

And the plastics industry is apparently excited about Starnes. As part of the recent award, many of Starnes' research papers, articles and patents, as well as a future oral history about his career, will soon be maintained by the Chemical Heritage Foundation in Philadelphia...

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