Joseph Kuczkowski came into the rubber industry as a chemist when research was still done for research's sake.
This year's recipient of the ACS Rubber Division's Charles Goodyear Medal—the association's highest honor—recalls that when he started his nearly 30-year career at Goodyear in 1971, the Chemical Division was an independent entity.
“The Tire Division handled us just as it handled any other supplier,” said Kuczkowski, who received his medal during the Rubber Division's Spring Meeting April 18-20 in Akron. “That was something that I thought was extraordinarily ethical.”
During his tenure at Goodyear, Kuczkowski stuck mainly to his niche in rubber chemicals. The Rubber Division, in its biography of him, said the chemist is “noted for his elucidation and explanation of the mechanisms of antioxidant and antiozonant function and how these stabilizing materials interact with rubber polymers.”
His studies resulted in the commercialization of several new antioxidant systems and an improvement in the stability of the polymers that contain them. He holds 23 U.S. patents in the rubber chemical and stabilization areas, and has 12 products still being manufactured.
These include two stand-alone commercialized products: Wingstay SN-1, a synergist that is used in several polymer systems; and Wingstay K, an autosynergist phenolic system that has exemplary antioxidant and anti-gel properties when used in polybutadiene rubber and SBR.
Early bent toward chemistry
Kuczkowski remembers exactly when he became interested in being a chemist—in 1957, when the Soviet Union shocked the world by launching Sputnik 1, the world's first artificial satellite.
“It was like a nationalism-type thing,” he said. “Many people couldn't accept it or believe that it was actually happening.”
The high school student felt the U.S. needed to be competitive, and if you “had the ability it was time to pursue something that would be of benefit overall for the country.”
Of course, it took awhile before Kuczkowski actually began his professional career as a chemist. Following high school, he received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Canisius College, a Jesuit school in his hometown of Buffalo, N.Y. The surrounding area, including Niagara Falls, had much industrial activity and the college had a good science program.
“It was rigorous,” the Charles Goodyear medalist said. “Of the 34 who started in the undergraduate program, only 13 graduated. Of those 13, 10 of us went on for advanced degrees.”
Professor Robert Conley was a big influence on Kuczkowski at Canisius because of the approach he had on organic chemistry, normally coming up with some sort of puzzle challenges for students to solve. Conley and Professor Berman Samanski also organized summer symposia designed to teach such techniques as gas chromatography.
“These were wonderful learning times because the industries would bring their latest machines,” he said. “People, including students, got hands-on experience learning how to run these things.”
From there, it was on to Wayne State University in Detroit to work on his doctorate. His mentor was Professor Michael Cava, who had been a student of Robert Woodworth, a Nobel Prize winner for his laboratory synthesis of strychnine.
At Wayne State, Kuczkowski worked on the hydrocarbon side of chemistry, which helped him greatly in his later career. “That work was almost a perfect fit for the type of work I did with Goodyear in antioxidants because the mechanisms were quite similar in how they operated,” Kuczkowski said.
Because he had enrolled in ROTC, he had to spend two years in the service during the Vietnam War. His entire tenure was spent stateside where he worked in a medical laboratory in Fort Baker, which was on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. His section had two responsibilities: to make line-of-duty determinations for soldiers who had died, and to conduct chemical analyses of materials sent in by all the branches of the military.
After fulfilling his service, he had offers from several companies looking to develop and market automatic analyzers to physician's offices. But Kuczkowski wanted to do synthetic organic chemistry work, so his next stop was a year of post-doctoral work at Tulane University.
Landing at Goodyear
In 1971, the nation was going through what Kuczkowski called the second of the “Nixon recessions,” so it was a pretty rotten job market.
“I remember sending out almost 330 handwritten petitions to different companies asking whether they had the possibility of employment,” he said.
At the time, most potential employers were polite, as he received replies from roughly two-thirds of the companies—mostly rejections. Of the 330 letters, he ended up with exactly three opportunities for interviews.
Besides Goodyear—the first of the interviews—he also was to talk with Hoffmann-La Roche Inc. in New Jersey and Scotts Seed Co. in Marysville, Ohio.
After the Goodyear interview, he was fairly certain that was where he wanted to end up. He liked the type of work they were proposing and the fact that Akron wasn't far from his hometown of Buffalo, where he still had family.
The Hoffmann-La Roche interview was what he called a “stress interview” and one of the strangest experiences of his life. In fact, while at Hoffmann-La Roche, he already had a letter in his coat jacket prepared to send to Goodyear to take that job. “I remember walking out of Hoffman-La Roche and mailing it,” Kuczkowski said.
At the time, he said Goodyear was a much different company than it is today. “It was extraordinarily paternalistic,” he said. “It had the same people still working for them that had actually put the synthetic rubber and the synthetic antioxidants to stabilize those rubbers in production. There was an aspect of stability that was totally remarkable.”
Kuczkowski said he fit into the atmosphere quite well and thoroughly enjoyed himself. “It was like the skies were all blue, there was no barbed wire on the horizon and we were capable of doing almost academic-type research in an industrial environment,” he said.
Goodyear gave its researchers enormous latitude, and he said that resulted in a pretty high success ratio for improvements within the firm's line of products. “Goodyear treasured people who were innovative and capable of planning their own work for the future,” Kuczkowski said.
His manager at the time was William Cox, who had worked for Universal Oil Products and knew much about antiozonants. His section head was Ronald Spacht, who was instrumental in the development of such antioxidants as Wing-stay S, V, T, L and R.
Kuczkowski showed the naivete of a new hire when he asked his bosses the seemingly simple question: “How do these things work.”
And the answer was an honest one. They had some idea but weren't totally sure. Both the antiozonant and antioxidant programs had been discovered by what Kuczkowski called “Edisonian” type research efforts. The scientists found something that worked and built upon it, without totally understanding why something did what it did.
“That honesty was my driving force,” he said. “If I could find out even a certain couple of aspects beyond what they already knew, then I'd make my contribution there.”
What he's recognized for
Wingstay SN1 originally was developed for use with Chemigum HR, which it made impervious to oil extraction, according to Kuczkowski. It was meant to replace a material that Bayer had quit making after a factory fire, and it ended up improving the product.
“Wingstay SN1 had the unique ability to survive cure,” he said. “Most don't survive the cure package system because it treats (the material) as if it were sulfur.”
It was developed around 1972 and the material is still in use today, although it was sold first to Eliokem and later to Tiarco, so it now touts a different brand name in the market.
Wingstay K was put in use as a stabilizer for polybutadiene and emulsion SBR. The change to this material helped the company reduce the scrap rate from about 20 percent to virtually nothing. The antioxidant is still in use by Good-year and others—Kuczkowski said Good- year alone produces about 1 million pounds a day of polybutadiene and 750,000 pounds a day of ESBR.
“If you could quantify what that one change in stabilizer saved all these years, the number would be astounding,” he said.
Kuczkowski also doesn't see anything that will take its place. “I believe it's going to be a millennium stabilizer,” he said.
After being hired in as a senior research chemist, Kuczkowski became first section head for rubber chemicals, then for rubber chemicals and hydroquinone. In 1988, he was promoted to research and development associate for chemicals and specialty polymers, the position he held until his retirement.
Though he was honored with the Charles Goodyear Medal primarily for his work on Wingstay SN 1 and K, he said his work actually was much broader. He became known for color stabilization of polymers and also worked on such things as an adhesive for holding the skin on the DeLorean car.
“Some were equally as important (as the Wingstay products) and some I can't tell you about because it's proprietary information,” he said.
Over the years, however, things began to change, both at Goodyear and in the rubber industry. Among other things, the industry became more competitive; a whole new set of environmental restrictions affected the plants and how business was conducted in the lab; and the company was attacked by a takeover attempt.
“I think upper management just got weary of the fact that being in the chemical industry was going to be so darn expensive. We weren't unique,” Kuczkowski said. “My own opinion is I don't think we were deliberately being bad actors. We weren't mistreating the environment. But some of the restrictions became extremely trying.”
In addition, the Tire Division decided it would tell the chemical unit what it wanted. The Charles Goodyear medalist said that resulted in a lot of projects that were impossible to achieve.
By 2001, Goodyear decided it was going to shed its chemicals business and the R&D effort that went along with it. They kept some of the synthetic rubbers and other bread-and-butter materials that directly supported the tire operations.
Kuczkowski and 300 others were offered early retirement and he took it. “It was the right decision,” he said. “People who thought they would stay on didn't last.”
He remained active in the Rubber Division, but has seen much decline in participation both in the division and also in local rubber groups. Major companies have reduced their R&D efforts, he said, and that has resulted in less fundamental research being conducted. He believes much of the work now is really massaging technology that's 10 years old.
“At division meetings, we used to have the privilege of rejecting papers we didn't think we'd want to have at the convention,” Kuczkowski said. “Now virtually everything that is submitted is accepted because we're having a harder time filling the program.”
Because of these changes, he doesn't expect future big discoveries in rubber to come from the U.S. “China and India are out-producing the number of engineers and scientists and chemists way beyond what we are,” he said. “They'll win just on the virtue of numbers. They'll solve their problems just by putting task forces to work.”