Bartlesville, Okla. — Max McDaniel, an expert in catalysts at Chevron Phillips Chemical Co., has worked for the same company for 44 years and in polyethylene that whole time.
He's even in the same building and the same desk.
"Well, I can't claim that I reasoned it all out when I came here. I was just happy to have any job," he said, chuckling. "But I don't think I could have done better. I've been happy to be here."
McDaniel, 70, is senior fellow scientist at Chevron Phillips. His office is in the pilot plant area in Bartlesville, where he helps develop catalysts, along with about a dozen other scientists and an equal number of technicians.
"Different catalysts make different kinds of polymers. That's why we have so many different types of catalysts," he said.
Catalysts play a key role in new materials. In petrochemical production, chemical companies need catalysts to make the reaction happen and then to tailor the actual polymer.
"In our business, the way you design new polymers is to make new catalysts," McDaniel said. "The catalyst determines what kind of polymer you make — the character of the polymer and how it molds as well as physical properties. And so, we start by modifying the catalyst."
McDaniel's name appears on 385 patents, but he said it takes teamwork. Nearly every patent has more than just his name on it; they include many coworkers at Phillips.
"What I do is play around in the lab until we think we have something that might be an improvement. We give it to the pilot plant. They run it, make several thousand pounds of polymer. Then we send it out here to the application side and they tell us what's wrong with it," he said.
His biggest innovation was discovering that chromium catalysts naturally impart long chain branching into polyethylene, allowing scientists and chemists to tailor PE to a wide range of uses.
Now his lifetime of achievements that changed the PE industry have earned him a place in the Plastics Hall of Fame.
McDaniel was nominated for the hall by Don Peters, a retired blow molding engineer who worked with McDaniel at Chevron Phillips.
"He is one of the most brilliant people who accomplished so much technically that benefited not only Phillips but also the industry. But it mostly wasn't one huge thing. It was a little bit by little bit improvements here and there that added up to huge improvements in the processes of polyethylene and properties," said Peters, who went into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 2000.
Several other key people nominated by Peters have gone into the Plastics Hall of Fame, including in 2015, Donald Norwood, the inventor of the loop reactor to produce polyethylene.
In 2014, Robert Banks and J. Paul Hogan, credited with the foundation of polypropylene and polyethylene, were posthumously inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame. The innovation happened in 1951, as they were trying to convert propylene into high-octane gasoline. They hit on long-lasting catalysts using different metals, including chromium.
"In addition to the liquid gasoline, they got a solid white power, which was crystalline polypropylene," McDaniel said. "They realized right away what they had."
He considers them all role models. But the one who took him under his wing when McDaniel arrived at Phillips in 1974 was Marvin Johnson, a scientist and longtime catalyst expert, who died last year.
"He was really helpful. He'd call me out at night and say, 'Look, come out later today and we'll work into the night, and I'll show you how to do things.' He did it to help me because I was young," McDaniel said.
McDaniel and the other catalyst researchers have access to the trove of earlier work by those pioneers.
"You try to extend something you know to something you don't know. And sometimes, depending on how big of an extrapolation it is, sometimes it works. A lot of times it doesn't, and you find out something new. So, that becomes your new extrapolation point for something else," he said.
But for someone working the same job, sitting at the same desk for 44 years, McDaniel still gets excited about chemistry. It's the thrill of the unknown every day, or as he said, "If you know what the results are gonna be, it's not really research; it's engineering."
Don Peters said McDaniel can focus.
"He's a very single-minded person. Once he starts on something, he works on it until he finds an answer," Peters said.
Peters and other plastics people at the company say McDaniel doesn't always strictly follow the advice of management.
"He kind of does his own thing, but he does it in line with the objectives of the company," Peters said.
McDaniel said the often unpredictable, experimental nature of catalysts work makes it difficult to follow hard corporate mandates. Just look at Hogan and Banks.
"You're never quite sure what's going to happen. And when it does, you try to put it into some coherent theory, and that lasts until the next experiment. Then you start all over again," he said. "It's science. That's the way science works. You come up with a theory. You try to prove it, disprove it. And then you modify your theory."
McDaniels said Chevron Phillips researchers use computers to analyze results. But there are still a lot of scientists mixing things together to see what happens, he said.
"We try to do it intelligently, rather than statistically. That's my preference," he said.
The mental challenge can be thrilling. He explains: "Well, you fire a shotgun and each point has no logic to it, you're just looking for patterns. And there are some machines that will do that. But it's hard to do that in our field. So, we still try to reason the way out. The reasoning is often wrong, but at least we're going in to see the logic behind it. And that's where the real satisfaction comes from, when you finally understand something that you've been beating your head on the wall for months, years. And suddenly the light shines and you go 'wow.'"