Alum honored as ACS Hero of Chemistry
Thomas F. Degnan Jr.
2:19 p.m., Sept. 14, 2007--University of Delaware alumnus Thomas F. Degnan Jr. has been honored as a “Hero of Chemistry” by the American Chemical Society (ACS). Degnan, manager of Breakthrough and New Leads Technology at ExxonMobil Research and Engineering Co. received his doctoral degree in chemical engineering from the University of Delaware in 1977. He and six members of his team won the recognition for developing a novel, cost-effective and environmentally friendly polyester production catalyst and process.

The ACS Heroes of Chemistry program recognizes chemical scientists whose work in various fields of chemistry and chemical engineering has led to the successful innovation and development of commercial products based on chemistry. The 2007 honorees were recognized Aug. 19 during the ACS fall national meeting in Boston.

“This was truly a team effort,” said Degnan, who, with his colleagues Jeevan S. Abichandani, Jeffrey S. Beck, Art Chester, Jocelyn Kowalski, Sharon McCullen and David Olson, developed PxMax, a highly selective catalytic process for producing para-xylene that virtually eliminates the need for catalyst for regeneration,.

Degnan explained that PxMax reduces the cost of para-xylene production from toluene, thus reducing the cost of polyethylene terephthalate (PET), one of the world's most widely used polymers. Para-xylene based polymers have numerous uses including, fabric for clothing, tires, home furnishings, liquid crystal displays (LCDs) and soft drink bottles. The reduced cost helps make polyester products more widely available and more affordable.

“PxMax also has important environmental benefits,” Degnan said. “The process generates less waste by reducing the energy needed for para-xylene separation. The process significantly reduces plant carbon dioxide emissions, a considerable benefit at a time when concerns about global warming are increasing.”

“I was very fortunate to be a member of a high-performing interdisciplinary team that was composed of several chemists, a ceramics engineer and two chemical engineers,” Degnan said. “It's one of those experiences in life that you reflect back upon with pride, but which, when you are in the heart of it--in this case technology development driven by a significant business opportunity with very aggressive timelines--you feel overwhelmed by the challenge and the time pressures.”

Degnan said his team was able to develop the process through careful manipulation of the catalyst properties at the molecular scale, a unique manufacturing process that produces a catalyst that allows the user to actually surpass equilibrium.

“Instead of producing a mixture of xylenes comprising 25 percent para-xylene, typical of conventional, equilibrium-limited toluene disproportionation processes, PxMax can produce para-xylene selectivities in excess of 90 percent,” Degnan said. “It does this through a permanent selectivation process that produces catalysts that discriminate between differences in xylene isomers of less than 0.01 nm (0.1 Angstrom)--nanotechnology at the 'sub-nano' scale. The catalyst is extremely stable and rarely requires regeneration. Several units have been running longer than six years without shut down or regeneration.”

Degnan went to graduate school at UD after receiving his bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from the University of Notre Dame in 1973. He also earned a master's degree in business administration from the University of Minnesota in 1980.

Degnan joined 3M's Central Research Division in 1976 and then moved to Mobil's Central Research Laboratory (CRL) in Princeton, N.J., in 1980. In 1989 he transferred to Mobil's Paulsboro Research Laboratory as group leader for hydroprocessing catalyst development. He was promoted to scientist in 1993, and, later the same year, he was appointed as manager of the Catalyst Technology Group in Mobil's Research, Engineering and Environmental Affairs organization.

In February 2000, Degnan was appointed laboratory director in ExxonMobil's Research and Engineering's Corporate Strategic Research Laboratory in Annandale, N.J., and in August 2004 he was appointed catalyst technology director for the Process Research Laboratories in ExxonMobil Refining and Supply Company. He was promoted to his present position in August 2006.

Degnan is a member of the Catalyst Club of New York and the North American Catalyst Society and is vice-chairman of the Research & Development Council of New Jersey. He also is a member of the advisory council of UD's Center for Catalytic Science and Technology, the Engineering Advisory Council at the University of Notre Dame, the New Directions Council of Purdue University's Chemical Engineering Department and the advisory council for the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at Johns Hopkins University.

Degnan is the named inventor or co-inventor on approximately 100 U.S. patents and has authored or coauthored more than 35 articles and outside presentations including one book and one monograph.

Article by Martin Mbugua