HOUSTON — In many ways, the story behind John Birmingham's Boulder Scientific Co. is a microcosm of the continuing metallocene technology saga. Birmingham was there at the technology's outset more than 40 years ago. His Mead, Colo.-based company remains a primary maker and marketer of metallocene catalysts to the plastics industry today, as several major manufacturers continue to spend amounts estimated in the billions of dollars to develop and commercialize metallocenes.
Birmingham took some time to look back on his career, as well as the past and present of the metallocene field, in an interview at the recent Metcon 97 conference in Houston. Boulder Scientific was one of several sponsors of the metallocene-oriented event.
As a graduate student under Geoffrey Wilkinson at Harvard University in the early 1950s, Birmingham was credited with discovering metallocenes for use with zirconium, titanium and several other rare-earth elements. Wilkinson, who pioneered a great deal of early metallocene research, would go on to win the Nobel Prize for chemistry in 1973.
By the early 1970s, Birmingham was working for the Arapajo Chemical Co. in Boulder, Colo., where he designed metallocenes and co-catalysts. When Arapajo moved away from metallocenes, Birmingham went into business for himself, opening Boulder Scientific in that city in 1973.
``I wanted to stay in an area I knew well,'' Birmingham said of his decision to open an office and laboratory with only one part-time assistant.
The move paid off to the point where the company moved to a larger site in Mead in 1979. That plant now employs 60, with Birmingham planning to expand the location within five years to meet increasing production demands.
He declined to release his company's sales figures, but said Boulder Scientific has enjoyed a growth rate of 25 percent in each of the past three years.
The company now does half its business in metallocenes, especially those used to toughen and improve linear low density polyethylene resins. Boulder Scientific produces almost 30 different metallocenes, sold in quantities ranging from a single gram to several kilograms.
Manufacturers, in turn, can produce as much as a million pounds of olefins using a single pound of metallocene catalyst.
That productivity is somewhat bittersweet for Birmingham, who pointed out that improved manufacturing technology has meant companies can process larger amounts of olefins while using smaller quantities of his metallocene catalysts.
Birmingham naturally is pleased to see recent growth in the metallocenes market, even if the materials' two-decade-long march to commercialization has been longer than many had anticipated.
``The most promising thing continues to be a better understanding of the relationship between catalysts and production,'' Birmingham said. ``We're seeing a shorter time between new products.''
The passing years have brought metallocene advancements that have made it much easier to give customers what they want from metallocene products, Birmingham added.
Major metallocene joint ventures, such as the Dow/BP Chemicals agreement and Exxon/Union Carbide's Univation effort, also have helped change how metallocenes are perceived in the industry, according to Birmingham.
``I think [the joint ventures] are really going to expand the market,'' Birmingham said. ``But at the beginning, I didn't think these kind of joint ventures would happen.''