Celebrating Dr. James Economy

Jacob Meyer
Celebrating Dr. James Economy

Recently, we celebrated the 90th birthday of one of ATSP’s co-founders – Dr. James Economy. As a former student of his, I wanted to write this article to talk about his remarkable career. He earned his PhD under Bill Bailey at the University of Maryland, doing some of the first work on Diels-Alder based polymerization reactions.  From 1954-56 he was a post-doc here at the University of Illinois under Carl Shipp Marvel where he initially worked on elastomers but then following a major contract from the Air Force began work on high temperature polymers.

Following that, he took a position at Allied Chemical where he was head of their research at Semet-Solvay Petrochemical researching polyolefins and developing new catalyst systems.

In 1960, he left Allied Chemical for the Carborundum Company, where he became manager of materials science and chemistry at the research branch of their R&D division. Right away, he began three lines of research, the first was on the homopolymer of para-hydroxybenzoic acid – demonstrating the first practical synthesis within this family. This polymer is still sold under the tradename of Ekonol. Remarkably quickly they managed to commercialize it. By 1963, it was specified as a thermally sprayed abradable seals for aircraft engines, an application it still completely occupies.

Research stemming from this included development of the co-polymers of the para-hydroxybenzoic structure, modified with terephthalic acid and hydroquinone to produce two separate co-polymers marketed initially as Ekkcel I-2000 and Ekkcel C-1000, again reaching the market very quickly – in less than 5 years. These products are still sold today (under different tradenames) by Solvay and Sumitomo. The I-2000 was especially interesting as an injection molding product with high thermal and mechanical properties. This was shortly thereafter also developed into a fibrous product following DuPont’s announcement of the Kevlar material in 1971. Recognizing the structural and molecular commonalities between the Kevlar and the I-2000 material, within 9 months, they succeeded in producing a fiber material that avoided Kevlar’s demanding spinning conditions while achieving comparable properties.  This product was taken to the pilot plant level, but unfortunately at this point though, the Mellon family wanted to exit the abrasives and refractories industry and so sold off Carborundum. Eight polymer and ceramic products were developed during his time at Carborundum that are still on the market. Between 1965 and 1975, he received 14 IR 100 awards. He was also cited by name in the Carborundum Company’s annual report.

Following this, he went to work for IBM as manager of their Polymer Science and Technology Department. While there, his group transferred numerous materials to the operating divisions and not only synthesized and characterized new polymers but developed initial pilot production of them. During his time there, he came to know Paul Flory very well through his consultancy with IBM and it was through this friendship that Dr. Economy was invited on the first scientific exchange with the People’s Republic of China following opening of relations. His time at IBM also included organizing numerous scientific meetings both with IBM’s divisions worldwide but also the leading polymer scientists of the day.

In 1989, he joined the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as Professor and Head of the newly merged Materials Science and Engineering Department. He continued to serve as head until 2000 and advised students until 2015 in areas ranging from high temperature materials to water and air purification. In 2010, he decided to move key polymer developments from the lab and into commercialization and so co-founded ATSP Innovations.

Dr. Economy has won numerous awards and recognition over the years including the AIC Chemical Pioneer Award, ACS Phillips Medal, the Southern Research Burn Institute Award, the Schoelkopf MedalHerman F. Mark Polymer Chemistry Award, election as a member of the National Academy of Engineering, and a Fellow of the National Academy of Arts and Sciences and the American Chemical Society. The James Economy chair in the Materials Science and Engineering Department of the University of Illinois was also recently announced.

Everyone at ATSP wishes you a happy birthday and hopes to live up to your example in pushing forward new technologies.