Engineering News

Acrylonitrile Pioneer Sees Bright Future In Lima Plant
Thursday, July 17, 2008

It was more than 50 years ago when James Idol and his team discovered a way to process ammonia and create what would eventually be called acrylonitrile. Little did he know he was creating a product that would change the world, not to mention the lives of thousands of Lima workers.

Idol spent Wednesday visiting the plant he helped build, the INEOS Lima Chemical Plant. In 1957, when Idol made his discovery, it was a Sohio chemical plant working with ammonia. Sohio executives saw the potential for the new process that required the combining of ammonia and petroleum products. Lima had a chemical plant next door to a refinery, so it was an obvious choice for the new plant.

"You really must acknowledge that Sohio management team at the time. They pushed to support us and build the first plant for what was an untested process," Idol said.

The first plant went up in 1959 and pumped out about 40 million pounds of acrylonitrile a year. Within six years, a second plant was constructed and production rose to 400 million pounds.

Today, acrylonitrile is used in everything from clothing and carpets to computer casings and sports equipment. Idol, now on staff at Rutgers University, holds the basic patent on what is called the Sohio Acrylonitrile Process, and continues to research new uses for the process.

One of the most exciting findings in recent years is the possibility that acrylonitrile could possibly be created with natural gas instead of petroleum. While the supply of petroleum product is dwindling, and what's left is increasingly expensive, scientist estimate gas hydrates trapped under the ocean floor contain 100 times the energy of all the world's petroleum supplies.

That means in time the process could get cheaper and even more popular.

"I continue to be fascinated with the use of acrylonitrile as the raw material of the future," Idol said. "It's going to find its way into a lot of materials we haven't even dreamed of yet."

As surely as Idol's discovery changed the world, it changed a lot of lives in Lima. Generations have made a good living off Idol's process. Members of United Steelworkers union Local 1-0626 Acrylonitrile group presented Idol with a plaque Wednesday acknowledging his contribution to workers and the Lima community.

"I've been here almost 30 years now. I've raised four sons and supported my church and community, all thanks to an idea you had," said union member Dick Seggerson while presenting Idol the plaque.

Idol said he believes his discovery, and future generations of uses, will continue to support the Lima plant and workers.

"We are sitting in this room on top of a very nice volcano that will hopefully erupt cash," Idol said.

Source: The Lima News, Ohio

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