Karl Ziegler (1964) - From Triphenylmethyl to Polyethylene - Less Well-Known Facts About the Developments Leading to the Invention Made in Muelheim (German presentation)

Karl Ziegler (1964)

From Triphenylmethyl to Polyethylene - Less Well-Known Facts About the Developments Leading to the Invention Made in Muelheim (German presentation)

Karl Ziegler (1964)

From Triphenylmethyl to Polyethylene - Less Well-Known Facts About the Developments Leading to the Invention Made in Muelheim (German presentation)

Comment

The present lecture is the first of two Karl Ziegler ever gave in Lindau. It is remarkable for several aspects, particularly for its honesty. Ziegler gives a very clear account of the complete scientific development that led to the invention of the famous Ziegler-Natta catalyst (1963 Nobel Prize in Chemistry to Karl Ziegler and Giulio Natta). In doing so, he does not leave out or sugarcoat any detour taken. He also makes it unmistakably clear that he never intended to develop a catalyst and initially did not even have a remote interest in technical applications of his organic chemistry research. Looking back from the point of view of his Nobel Prize worthy results, the experiments he describes thus paint the picture of a rather windy road to a hardly anticipated success.

However, Ziegler also points out that as soon as the far-reaching importance of his results became apparent, he followed up on them with quite some curiosity, focus and vigour. Towards the end of his talk, he describes his approach as an unbiased, impartial and attentive hike through the world of chemistry, combining aspects of the organic, inorganic and technical manifestations of the field. He thereby raises a strong point in favour of the benefits of fundamental, untargeted, interdisciplinary research.

This point is emphasized further when one considers the impact of Ziegler’s work on science and society. Today, just as in 1964, the year of the talk, Ziegler-Natta catalysts are used worldwide for the large scale industrial manufacture of polyethylene (from ethylene) and polypropylene (from propylene), two of the most common and widely employed plastics. The total global annual production of these two materials is well in excess of 100 million tonnes, generating an annual market of around 200 billion EUR. In fact, it is highly unlikely that you do not have a Ziegler-Natta based plastic in your reach while you are reading this. Water bottles, plastic bags, stationery, but also car parts and laboratory equipment are just a few examples.

From a chemical perspective, the importance of transition metal to carbon bonds (e.g. carbon to titanium bonds in the case of the Ziegler-Natta catalyst) in chemical catalysis surged in the second half of the 20th century. The result are several important technical processes such as the Monsanto and CATIVA processes for the large-scale production of acetic acid from methanol as well as a plenty of Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, the most recent ones being the 2001 Prize to William S. Knowles, Ryoji Noyori and K. Barry Sharpless, the 2005 Prize to Yves Chauvin, Robert H. Grubbs and Richard R. Schrock as well as the 2010 Prize to Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki. The way towards these impressive developments was paved by Ziegler’s early success with transition metal catalysis, a success, which according to Ziegler himself, essentially depended on the academic freedom he enjoyed during his career.

David Siegel

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