Everyday Use Of Acrylics In Daily Life in Plain Dealer Metro

Sohio's research facility had moved to Warrensville Heights by 1970.

August 14, 2012 - Cleveland, OH

by Leila Atassi

In March of 1957, in a laboratory at Standard Oil of Ohio’s Cleveland research facility, industrial chemist James Idol Jr. set up a mini reactor that he had built with his own hands and showed his assistant, Evelyn Jonak, how to work the instruments.

Idol instructed Jonak on what ratios to use of propylene, air, ammonia and other chemicals. The experiment, if successful, would yield acrylonitrile — a key ingredient in acrylic fibers with untold numbers of commercial and industrial applications — in greater quantities than could ever before be produced cost-effectively.

Before Idol headed off to a meeting with his supervisor, leaving the experiment in Jonak’s hands, he said, “Evy, if this by any chance works, you can come up and break down the door, because we’ll really have something big.”

About a half hour later, Idol’s meeting with research supervisor Franklin Veatch was interrupted by Jonak beating on the door and yelling, “It worked! It worked!”

“Well,” Idol told Veatch, “I guess we can take the rest of the day off.”

Idol, 83, who is now retired and lives in Columbus, laughed as he reminisced about his discovery during a 1994 interview with the Chemical Heritage Foundation.

But that recipe of chemical reactions — known today as the Sohio Acrylonitrile Process — led to the dramatic growth of the thermoplastics, synthetic fiber and food packaging industries, according to the American Chemical Society. And it made acrylonitrile widely and inexpensively available for manufacturing of items used in daily life, such as clothing, computers, cars and sports equipment.

According to the ACS, acrylonitrile was first produced in 1893 by chemist Charles Moureu, but did not become important until the 1930s, when applications such as acrylic fibers for textiles and synthetic rubber were discovered.

Although its utility was obvious to chemists, acrylonitrile was expensive and time-consuming to make. And the process was affordable only for the world’s largest and wealthiest manufacturers — American Cyanamid, Union Carbide, DuPont and Monsanto — all of which produced it at low volumes and for limited applications.

In the late 1950s, however, a team of Sohio scientists embarked upon a series of experiments that led to a scientific breakthrough — acrylonitrile manufactured in a single step. Realizing the scientific and industrial significance of the findings, Sohio commissioned the building of an acrylonitrile plant in Lima, with the ability to produce 47.5 million pounds of acrylonitrile a year. Rather than keep the technology to itself, Sohio began licensing its process to other manufacturers.

Sohio’s license to China in 1973, was the first transaction by an American company after China opened its doors to U.S. investment, according to the ACS. Today the Sohio Acrylonitrile Process is used in more than 90 percent of the world’s acrylonitrile production. And annual worldwide yield grew from 260 million pounds in 1960 to more than 11.4 billion pounds in 2005, the ACS reports.

Sohio’s research facility, which eventually was moved to Warrensville Heights, later was occupied by BP Chemicals Inc., and currently houses laboratories for Sherwin-Williams Co. But the ACS in 1996 dubbed the site a National Historic Chemical Landmark in honor of the Sohio chemists’ monumental discovery. Reflecting upon the role he played, Idol told his interviewer in 1994, that he and his team “stood on the shoulders of giants” when they introduced the Sohio Acrylonitrile Process to the world of chemistry.

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