Flamboyant and colorful, Paolo Galli loves to talk about everything from art to wine to undersea exploration to ... polymerization catalysts.
Right after college, Galli joined the Montecatini unit of Italy's Montedison SpA, working as a laboratory researcher with his idol, famed Italian chemist Giulio Natta. In a long career, he developed major catalyst technology that advanced PP to a mainstream resin. He also worked on polyethylene catalysts.
Now Galli, 72, is entering the Plastics Hall of Fame. He is described as one of the three giants of polyolefins, along with Natta, who first polymerized PP, and Germany's Karl Ziegler, who developed new early catalysts to make PE.
Galli graduated from the University of Padua in 1961 with a doctorate in industrial chemistry. He won a national award as the top scientific graduate of the year, picking up a large stipend, but even more importantly, the winner was allowed to choose his or her employer.
He didn't hesitate: I want to work with Giulio Natta.
Galli became a researcher at Montecatini in 1962. Natta was his supervisor. The following year, Natta, along with Ziegler, won the Nobel Prize for chemistry. Galli's apprenticeship at the lab was titled: Development of New Polymerization Technologies based in the Ziegler-Natta Catalysis.
Natta made a huge impact on the young polymer scientist. Galli remembers his mentor as a modest man who was extremely well-organized.
He was a great scientist. But even more, he was a manager, he was an organizer. He was not a scientist losing his time in discovering the 'mysteries of science,' Galli said.
Montecatini first produced polypropylene in 1957, but the results were disappointing, according to Galli. The amount produced was very small and it was not profitable because a new breakthrough was mandatory. And I was so lucky to have done this breakthrough and keep PP alive, he said.
PP was a material searching for a high-yield catalyst to improve the chemical reaction during polymerization.
Galli became director of engineering research and pilot plants. Then he got promoted to director of basic research and process development, covering all fields of polyolefins, from 1969-75. Those years were an intense period of innovation.
We needed an ideal catalyst, he said.
Any catalyst system must have a defined chemical structure. But during his research, Galli came to an important insight: The physical shape of the catalyst or its morphology was important for superior results for polyolefins.
Using a methodical approach based on mathematical modeling, Galli found that the best shape is spherical, with the proper dimensions and a defined porosity. Also, a prepolymerization in the catalyst is desirable to keep the main polymerization process under thermal control.
The firm dubbed the PP process Spheripol. Galli had discovered the basic principles of catalyst-to-polymer replication. The spherical technology was the basis for other processes Spherilene for PE, Spherizone for PP and Catalloy for specialty polymers.
Spheripol had the biggest impact. The technology today is used globally, at 142 PP plants.
Galli's innovations also probably saved Montecatini's research center in Ferrara, Italy. Galli said that, when he first made his catalyst discovery, only five people worked there. In the mid-1970s, as Spheripol became commercialized, the company beefed up its staff to 50 or 60 people, he said.
Instead of closing the center, they started giving me more money, more resources, he said.
In 1976, Galli reorganized the Ferrara Research Center, which was renamed the Giulio Natta Research Center.
From 1983-89, Galli served as vice president of technology for PP maker Himont Inc., a venture between Montedison and Hercules Inc. Then he became managing director of research at Montedison where he took a side trip to photograph the ruins of a Roman ship in the Adriatic Sea.
In 1995, Montedison and the Shell group of companies merged their worldwide polyolefin operations, forming Montell Polyolefins BV. Galli was president of the Montell Technology unit until he retired from the company in 1999.
Today Galli is a scientific adviser for Borealis Polyolefine GmbH of Vienna.
Galli was nominated for the Plastics Hall of Fame by Dieter Freitag of Germany, a polycarbonate pioneer at Bayer AG, who also is in the hall. Freitag introduced Galli when he won the coveted Herman F. Mark Medal in 1998.
Galli's message is to never give up. When I started demonstrating the results, more and more people got on board. But at the beginning, the leading scientists said, 'Impossible. This can never work.'
Companies may want to cut research in today's global economy, but Galli said that's a mistake.
If you don't have basic research, you can't go into production. You have to have this basic knowledge. You cannot build a plant if you don't understand the process, he said.