Dieter Freitag created his biggest innovation - a modified polycarbonate used to make CDs - before the CD itself was even invented, and the story is a classic example of why, for an inventor, persistence is so important.
The new type of polycarbonate sat on the shelf until the application presented itself, and then it radically changed recorded music.
"You have to have market needs, but you must look ahead. You must look at what is the next generation," Freitag said. This week, the 67-year-old German materials expert can look forward to his newest honor, induction into the Plastics Hall of Fame.
Before the CD innovation, Freitag had already led efforts by Bayer AG to modify polycarbonate into sheet for construction glazing and high-temperature applications like automotive lighting.
In the late 1970s, at Bayer AG, Freitag found a way to enhance the injection molding process for parts from PC. His goal: modify PC so that it flowed more easily, yet retain the toughness of the original polycarbonate. In the laboratory, he made it happen by developing new end groups of the polymer chain.
Then he hit a roadblock. "It was great, but it was good in the lab, but not so good in the pilot plant," Freitag said. Bayer was ready to give up, but Freitag and a colleague in production pushed on, continuing to tweak the injection moldable PC.
It sat on the shelf until one day, when officials from Philips Electronics NV came by carrying an odd-looking metal disc embedded with billions of tiny indentations, or pits. The pits contained digital information, which would be read by a laser.
"They told us that, in this metal disc, is the total symphony of Beethoven," Freitag said.
Philips needed a plastic with a glasslike transparency and low viscosity, so it would flow well and have high impact strength. Freitag had already developed such a material, giving Bayer an important leg up on the huge, new CD market.
When they finally came out in 1982, CDs injection molded from Bayer's Makrolon CD 2000 created a worldwide sensation.
Freitag's work has resulted in 429 patents, covering a wide body of materials work during 33 years at Bayer AG of Leverkusen, Germany. But the polymer research and development leading to the CD, and later recordable CDs and DVDs, stands as his greatest achievement, he said.
Freitag retired from Bayer in 2000, then joined Triton Systems Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass., to work on research in polymers that are flame-retardant and extremely shock-absorbent. Triton's executive vice president, David Model, nominated Freitag for the Plastics Hall of Fame.
"Dr. Freitag is not only a visionary theoretician, he is a hands-on chemist, developing his chemistry breakthroughs the old-fashioned way, in the laboratory," Model wrote in the nomination letter. "As impressive as his résumé is, the most impressive thing about Dr. Freitag is his personality - passionate in his interests, unyielding in his pursuit of scientific truth, unwavering in his energy."
Enthusiasm for chemistry started early for the native of Offenbach, Germany. Teachers focused on language studies, on Greek and Latin. One teacher gave some lessons in chemistry, and Freitag got good marks, but he didn't really understand the subject.
So when he was about 14 or 15 years old, Freitag bought a chemistry book and dug in.
"The reason was, I wanted to know what is, really, chemistry? The book was very difficult to read. But I digested it, and the more I understood, the more I got interested in it," he said.
Freitag did science experiments in his house. His parents made him go to the top floor in case something blew up. But that was the exciting part - the physical sensation of mixing liquids and powders, creating things, releasing energy.
He recalled his feelings as a young man - a buzz he still gets today: "You are the first human being to bring the materials together. The most important thing is to bring new elements together and to form new stuff, new materials."
After graduating in 1959, he studied at the University of Freiburg, then transferred to the University of Frankfurt, closer to home. He now had real chemistry teachers, at a school well-known for its work on organic and polymer chemistry.
"This was a fantastic time," he said. "This time I had full support that I didn't have before. I had all the chemicals and the laboratories. I was so happy at that time." He became a star student, getting 12 published technical papers while still in college. He finished his studies in Frankfurt and continued to work on his doctorate.
Freitag's work caught the attention of Hermann Schnell, who had invented polycarbonate for Bayer in 1953. One of his professors had presented Freitag's work at a technical conference attended by Schnell, the head of research at Bayer's facilities in Uerdingen, Germany.
"He was so fascinated, he came to my professor and said, 'I have to have this man,'" Freitag said.
But he still had not done his thesis. Schnell hired him anyway, on the condition that he would join Bayer, which he did when he completed his thesis, with honors. He started in 1967 at Bayer's central research operation.
When he started, Freitag's first assignment was not polycarbonate but organic intermediates. He synthesized a new diamine that was needed to prepare transparent polyamides for a photographic film application. He had other successes but got frustrated and went to Schnell. He wanted to make materials that went into actual final products.
Schnell gave him some advice: "He said, 'It is not only important to make an invention, you must also bring it over all the hurdles. And the highest invention has the highest hurdle,'" Freitag recalled. The PC legend also filled him in on politics. People won't always understand. Even if you have a big breakthrough, some will be against you.
Freitag said developing new materials at a huge company requires teamwork and a mix of creative types and people who are practical and driven.
"The invention you must make alone. Nobody helps you, but once you get it, you need a lot support and help. Otherwise it will die."
In 1973, Freitag was promoted to manager of a polymers group in central research. The Bayer researchers began a string of polycarbonate innovations that led to 18 experimental and commercial products and more than 50 patents from 1974-78.
Bayer had been making polycarbonate for some time. GE Plastics had Lexan, and both companies were racing to develop second-generation products.
Freitag had a three-part strategy: to use so-called "end group technology" to alter properties of the material by changing the ends of the polymer chain, to develop new branching agents and to work on new monomers.
Innovations included the discovery of an optimal branching agent for PC in 1976, modifying the Makrolon PC with excellent extrusion properties. This allowed the economical production of multiwalled sheet for greenhouses and large skylights. Another development was APEC HT, a new polycarbonate with superior heat-resistance, used in automotive and industrial lighting, appliances and medical devices.
Freitag won the Otto Bayer Gold Medal in 1985. The next year, he moved to Bayer's plastics applications department where he was responsible for the development of thermosets, films and additives.
In 1988, he was named director and head of R&D for Bayer's Plastics Business Group. After returning to central research in 1994, he led the material research department until he retired from Bayer in 2000. From 1994-97, he also chaired the materials research committee, a group responsible for all polymer research at Bayer.
In retirement, he spent time with his hobbies, swimming and jogging. "But my wife, Katherina, said it was impossible for me to sit at home," he said. So he became a lecturer at the University of Bonn, then got the Triton job.
In what spare time he has, Freitag collects Roman coins. His oldest is from the Greek period, minted around 480 B.C.
Get him talking about his coin collection, and his enthusiasm for history and ancient civilizations comes out. "I'm always curious," he said.