Frederick J. Karol said he makes every effort to talk to the raw rookies at Union Carbide Corp. — recent college graduates who toil at Carbide laboratories.
This is a man who holds 83 U.S. patents, a man recognized around the world as a polymer catalyst expert. He led Carbide's development of the revolutionary Unipol process to make polyethylene in the 1960s and 1970s. He earned the highest honor for applied chemistry in 1989, the Perkin Medal. This week he goes into the Plastics Hall of Fame.
Unipol marked a sea change in the production of low and high density PE, used in everything from grocery sacks and detergent bottles to insulation for electric power cables. Today 46 licensees in 26 countries use Unipol, turning out about 25 percent of the world's supply of PE— a capacity of about 20 billion pounds.
So why is the 64-year-old Karol down talking to the new lab rats?
Because he said, he believes in the teamwork and new ideas that spawned Unipol.
``There's a constant renewal as young people come into the organization. One of the exciting things is how they get perspective and how they fit into the organization,'' he said.
Karol is one of only two senior corporate fellows at Carbide's Polyolefins Division, the company's highest technical rank.
He is quick to point out that it takes a large number of people to create chemical company innovations. Carbide takes young people experienced in lab work and exposes them to how products get to commercial production. New hires learn about marketing and even liability, meeting with company lawyers.
``They just don't have the exposure to that in the schools,'' Karol said. ``There's a vast education base from which people build in terms of exposures to areas way beyond just laboratory work.''
Karol is a 41-year Union Carbide veteran. He received a bachelor's degree in chemistry from Boston University in 1954. Two years later he joined Danbury, Conn.-based Carbide, working there from 1956-1959. Then he left to earn a doctorate in organic chemistry from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He returned to Carbide in 1962.
Karol began work on technology for making PE in a gas-phase, fluidized bed reactor. The result, Unipol, ran at much lower pressures and temperatures than the traditional high-pressure process. Unipol resulted in smaller resin plants that were less expensive to build and used less energy.
In 1968, Carbide created its first prototype production reactor in Seadrift, Texas, to make HDPE. Linear LDPE followed.
The early-1970s energy crisis gave the Unipol development team a shot of adrenalin.
``The '70s were a very energetic time, with regard to the energy crisis in combination with the technology we were developing,'' Karol said. ``It provided some unique opportunities to go to gas-phase technology as opposed to the energy-intensive, high-pressure route.''
The Society of Plastics Engineers gave Karol its top honor, the International Award in 1990, and the Award for Plastics/Engineering Technology in 1989.
Karol and his wife, Ruth, live in Belle Mead, N.J. He works at the Carbide research and development facility in Bound Brook, N.J.