CHICAGO (June 19, 8:20 p.m. EDT) — Jack Koenig shed light on the polymer industry — literally — by developing spectroscopy from a crude apparatus into a science widely used for decades.
“What happens when you shine light on a molecule, the molecule can selectively absorb frequencies corresponding to the internal energies of the molecule,” Koenig said. “And then each molecule has a characteristic distribution of energies, which we call a fingerprint.”
Koenig was one of the first faculty members at Case Western Reserve University's polymer science and engineering program, founded by Eric Baer in 1963 at the Cleveland school. This week at NPE 2006, Koenig is being inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame. Baer went into the hall in 2000.
Koenig retired from CWRU last year, although he still goes in one day a week. He's “toying with” the idea of rewriting Spectroscopy of Polymers, his 1990 landmark book now in its second edition.
His CWRU students called him Black Jack for working them so hard, or “king,” for the German meaning of his name. He was nominated to the hall by his first graduate student, Donald Witenhafer, a consultant in Dublin, Ohio. Witenhafer said CWRU, in the early days of the polymer department, was not the institution it is today.
“I would say the classes from all the professors at that time were kind of interesting because all of them were new. The students contributed a lot to the classes,” said Witenhafer, who plans to attend the Plastics Hall of Fame banquet June 19.
Today, spectrometers are tied to computers and they spew out reams of information and colorful images. When Koenig first got involved, they were primitive. “We knew about using infrared lights to identify polymers. But we didn't know to measure how much, what 'quantitative amount of' — like the end groups, like the quantitative amount of the branching,” he said.
Not having a measurable amount meant spectroscopy was limited, he recalled. “You could tell a polyethylene from, say, a Teflon or a PET. But microstructure ... was not possible to obtain.”
Koenig joined DuPont Co. in 1959, when the plastics industry was not too far removed from the days of plastics pioneers when factory-floor experts burned and sniffed, or bit off a sample to tell the type of plastic. Koenig's work advanced spectroscopy into a sophisticated tool to characterize and measure polymer molecules.
Koenig, 73, talked about his career in an interview at his home in Chagrin Falls, Ohio. His back yard soon becomes woods. Toys and books are waiting when grandchildren visit Jack and his wife, Jeanus. He looks up dates and other information on a laptop.
Life began modestly. He was born on a Nebraska cattle ranch, but soon moved to South Dakota, where his father had his own car repair garage. At South Dakota's Yankton College in the early 1950s, Koenig wanted to be a mathematician, until his math teacher said: “Jack, the only job you can get is to be an insurance actuator or something of that sort.” So he switched to a dual major in chemistry and math.
He served in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, then married and, with a baby son, finished college. Jobs were hard to find, so he used the G.I. Bill to attend the University of Nebraska. He received a master's degree and a doctorate, in theoretical spectroscopy.
DuPont hired Koenig as a research chemist in 1959. Assignment: polyethylene. “The biggest molecule I worked on in college was ammonia. So I didn't even know what a polymer was until I got to DuPont. And I was submerged,” he said.
Plastics were still somewhat limited to toys, packaging and basic car components. The industry could identify a polymer by measuring insolubility and viscosity. Spectroscopy was seen as a key to advance plastics, as demands increased.
“We knew how to make plastics. How to process plastics. How to use them. But ... we did not know how to characterize them.”
Pumping out huge quantities of resin, DuPont and the other firms needed better control — or at least a more-exact view of their lack of control.
“You can't polymerize a plastic and get the same product every time you do it, because there's fluctuations in temperature and concentrations and other things,” Koenig said in his deep voice. “But we had no way of monitoring that. So that was very important.”
In his four years at DuPont, Koenig:
* Invented the infrared method of measuring branching in a PE polymer chain, which causes the different types of PE. “I could differentiate between how many branches were there, and that was correlated with the properties of the material. So that's when we characterize it: The difference in branching is the difference between a low-density and high-density polymer.”
* Invented the method to characterize something called the stereoregularity of poly-propylene, by looking at patterns along the polymer chain.
* Developed a method for determining crystallinity of PET — how polymer chains line up and are crystallized, a key factor in PET bottle clarity.
* Invented the method of determining the molecular weight of Teflon by measuring the number of end groups.
Several of the spectroscopic methods are now ASTM standards.
DuPont put Koenig on a fast track for management, so the company cycled him through different areas. “My last six months at DuPont I spent injection molding combs,” he said. He wanted more of a challenge: “I was looking down that tunnel, and I didn't care for it.”
So in 1963, he went to CWRU, recruited by Baer. Like Koenig, Baer also had worked a few years at DuPont. Case boasted a brand-new polymer department and strong industrial partnerships, built by Baer. “This is what got our polymer group rolling,” he said of the industry links.
And industry was hungry for improved spectroscopy. “My background allowed me to aid them to quantify what they were making,” he said. At DuPont, he had been one of the first to hook the instrument up to a computer. It looked at PP.
“Essentially all I did was interface a computer so that it punched out the digital numbers” on punch cards. The physical space between the punches measured the frequency; a digital number showed the intensity. “That measured the structure of poly-propylene,” he said. “That was how archaic that was.”
A rubber-related invention at Case won Koenig the American Chemical Society's coveted Goodyear Medal in 2000. He created the method for quantitatively measuring the cross-link density of rubber compounds. That same year, he entered the National Academy of Engineering, the hall of fame for engineers in the U.S.
In another innovation, Koenig advanced the old technique of Raman imaging — or connecting the spectrometer to a microscope to do higher-level spatial sampling by using a special filter.
“Some of the most recent work that we've done is, instead of just measuring the concentration, we actually measure what we call the 'spatial distribution.' We make an image. ... Then we take a plastic material, and let's say we fill it with some filler, silica or something. The uniformity of that piece you make determines its property,” he said.
“Raman is very old as a technique, but Raman imaging is quite new,” he added.
Koenig's most recent work involved the timed release of medicines in the body. Again, using spectroscopy to find the spatial distribution is the key to seeing how the drug dissolves in water. Researchers developed a method to see whether the release rate is determined by the solubility of the polymer or the solubility of the drug.
Koenig won the Jorge Heller Award in 2003 for the best paper in a journal published by the Controlled Release Society.
Like many lifelong researchers, Koenig has strong feelings on the state of U.S. industrial research and development. Resin makers used to reinvest a certain percentage of the profit from a material back into basic research. But intense global competition has cut into that, he said.
“They're just innovating incrementally on what they have. But they don't seem to be looking at production of a 'new plastic,' ” he said.
Koenig had a front-row seat to U.S. research efforts when, in 1972, he took a leave from CWRU to become the National Science Foundation's first program director of polymers at the new Division of Materials Research. But now government has cut back funding, which will hurt long-term competitiveness, he said. “If you don't continue to generate new things, you die on the vine.
“New resins, new equipment, new things have to be developed. And we have to keep growing or economically we don't compete.”