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Sunday, January 6, 2013

Plastics Hall of Fame is part of UMass Lowell’s push to raise plastic’s profile

Bob Malloy knows more about plastic than you ever will – than most people ever will, for that matter – but he admits that plastic has an image problem even among the people who make it.

“Nobody knows what a plastics engineer is; they don’t even know it exists,” said Malloy, chairman of the nation’s oldest university department devoted to plastic engineering, at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “They know chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, but plastic – no.” ...

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Bob Malloy knows more about plastic than you ever will – than most people ever will, for that matter – but he admits that plastic has an image problem even among the people who make it.

“Nobody knows what a plastics engineer is; they don’t even know it exists,” said Malloy, chairman of the nation’s oldest university department devoted to plastic engineering, at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. “They know chemical engineers, mechanical engineers, but plastic – no.”

Somehow, working with plastics, even at the level of cutting-edge science and industry, just seems less serious or admirable than working with metals or liquids or gases. This may be part of the reason that the UMass Lowell program remains virtually unique in the country, a half-century after it opened.

“Plastic seems cheap,” said Malloy, whose career has been spent researching and developing methods of making and improving types of plastic, producing a myriad of technical papers, books and patents.

UMass Lowell would like to change that image, and hopes to do so with its gleaming new $80 million Saab Emerging Technologies and Innovations Center, which includes facilities and machinery for research into sexier topics like nanotechnology but is dominated by plastics engineering. (The Saab name comes from alumnus Mark Saab and his wife, Elisia, not from the car company.)

This impressive structure on the banks of the Merrimack River is the biggest new academic/research building in a half-dozen decades at this school of 14,000 students, the closest research university to Greater Nashua. It opened in October.

The building’s facilities will the topic of a later GraniteGeek column; for the moment, however, let’s consider one unusual component that Malloy introduced there to help spread the word of plastics: the Plastics Hall of Fame and a still-developing collection of historical items related to plastic.

Some of this comes from the National Plastics Museum that used to exist in Leominster, Mass., where much of the nation’s plastics industry got its birth. That center, which was mostly an education facility for schoolchildren, closed in 2008, and Malloy began a lobbying campaign to shift part of it to the school. Many of its papers are at Syracuse University in New York, but the hall of fame came to Lowell.

“The idea is to recognize people who have had a very significant role in the plastic industry … which impacts our lives in any way you can think of,” Malloy said.

He admits that few of the people in the hall, who are chosen by the Society of the Plastics Industry, will be familiar to us. Their brainchildren often are familiar, though.

There’s Tom Brady – no, not that Tom Brady – who developed PET, the plastic that makes most soda bottles possible. There’s John Wesley Hyatt, who in 1870 answered a $10,000 challenge to find an alternative to ivory for billiard balls, creating the first manmade plastic. And there’s Stephanie Kwolek, who developed what has become Kevlar, the super-material best known in bulletproof vests.

Kwolek’s entry actually says she “developed the first liquid crystalline solutions of extended chain aromatic polyamides into high-tenacity and -modulus fibers,” which shows the limits to public accessibility of a technical Hall of Fame. Its big appeal is likely to be for people in the industry, or prospective and current students, Malloy said.

More likely to interest the casual passerby is Malloy’s still-developing idea of the history of plastic items, including very cool-looking art deco radios from the 1920s, when a type of plastic known as Bakelite first made it possible to create consumer products in various colors. Malloy has some equipment, including what may the nation’s oldest extruder – a machine that spits out long sections of an item, in this case rubber insulation that went around cabling, possibly including the first trans-Atlantic telegraph cable.

The machine dates to 1865 and was originally powered by a water wheel, which gives it a perfect connection to Lowell’s embrace of its history with the water-powered textile industry. Malloy hopes to get it set up in the lobby of the new center.

More up-to-date methods of improving plastic’s image include tackling its drawbacks, notably waste. Plastics are so varied in molecular makeup – and so hard to separate out, unlike metallic alloys – that recycling and disposal is difficult.

Among other things, UMass Lowell has a number of people doing research into bioplastics, holding out hope for a plastic that can be composted.

There’s one other aspect of the hall of fame that is of interest here: Three of its members have been UMass Lowell faculty.

That includes Malloy himself, inducted this year.

David Brooks can be reached at 594-6531 or dbrooks@nashuatelegraph.com. Follow Brooks’ blog on Twitter (@GraniteGeek).