AKRON—Don't tell Russell A. Livigni, this year's Charles Goodyear Medalist, that the age of invention in rubber chemistry is past.
"Anyone who thinks there is nothing left to do in this area, nothing left to do in the tire business, I say balderdash. That's ridiculous," Livigni said. "Because just when you think that's true, someone is going to come around the corner and eat your cake."
Livigni knows something about polymer chemistry—and that's an understatement. During his days at General Tire and its successor company, GenCorp Inc., he led the discovery of high trans SBR, a crystallizing rubber that has many of the properties and strengths of natural rubber but doesn't oxidize and degrade like NR. It was a major breakthrough in tire technology.
That achievement earned Livigni the ACS Rubber Division's highest award, presented April 23 during the association's spring meeting in Akron.
Home grown scientist
Akron was an appropriate venue for Livigni to receive the Charles Goodyear Medal. The 79-year-old is an Akronite through and through.
"I was born, like many during that time, at our home, on Wilbeth Ave.," Livigni said after lecturing at the Rubber Division meeting. Except for a brief time in Firestone Park, Livigni lived at the family home on Manchester Road through graduate school.
Livigni's entire education occurred in Akron, right through his doctorate. His interest in chemistry didn't develop until he was attending Kenmore High School, where he pursued his first love, music.
"I played clarinet and sax. We had a dance band in high school," he said, playing at teen dances.
"We called ourselves the Melody Kings. In retrospect, that's pretty corny."
Livigni was a good enough musician that "I was pursued hotly by the University of Akron to join the band. I had been band president at Kenmore High," he said. He also was an accomplished tennis player—"I have more awards for tennis than science"—but chemistry was drawing his attention.
The scientist said he always had an interest in chemistry. "Then I was fortunate to have Mr. Jerome Brown as my chemistry teacher, who not only set my career marching toward chemistry, but many others in the class."
Livigni said Brown wasn't just a very good teacher, but a good cheerleader who helped his students move along quickly in their studies.
"I found chemistry very easy, and I was reading college textbooks in high school," he said.
With the help of his father, Andrew, Livigni set up a lab in the basement of his home when he was in high school. He did experiments there and used it all the way through his education at the University of Akron.
In those times the school was very affordable, he said, offering free tuition to Akron residents. "I could live at home, which was really affordable."
Livigni recalls that back then, drug stores carried various chemicals he could use in his experiments.
"You could buy materials that today are really prohibited. In those days you didn't have to sign or anything. I'd go to drug stores in downtown Akron for more exotic ones."
One day he went downtown to buy pyridine and rode the bus home carrying the particularly odious chemical. "People on the bus all moved away from me. You could really smell it."
First rubber industry job
Livigni made his mark with General Tire and GenCorp, but it was one of their competitors that put him on his path in polymer science. After graduating from high school, he took a summer job in 1952 at the Firestone synthetic rubber lab in Akron. When he turned 18, he began working the night shift, too.
"I really enjoyed it because I had an exposure to rubber and polymer chemistry." He said that experience turned his interest not just for chemistry, but to be a polymer rubber chemist, which was a specialty at the University of Akron.
Livigni later became a research assistant at the Firestone laboratories, and he believes that experience helped him be selected for a similar post with Maurice Morton, head of the UA polymer program—himself a future Charles Good¬- year Medalist.
After getting an "affordable" bachelor's degree in chemistry, Livigni won a two-year scholarship for graduate school at UA from Firestone. Then, the National Science Foundation gave him a fellowship as he pursued his Ph.D. in polymer chemistry.
Ford Motor Co. was his first employer after his schooling ended in 1960. Livigni moved to Dearborn, Mich., and worked setting up a lab and on some basic polymer projects. "They really wanted to build a laboratory to make polymers, and that's what I was focused on. I thought, gee, I could use my time better."
He wanted to get back to Akron because it was the Mecca of the polymer- rubber industry, and, "I am not ashamed to say, I became homesick."
He applied at three research departments at General Tire, got offers from all of them, and ended up working for Sundar L. Aggarwal, vice president and director of the company's research division.
"This guy Aggarwal, he was like a hypnotist. He was a visionary, a chemist, a great leader, and I learned a lot from him not only in terms of science, but also the managerial aspects of my career. He wasn't always right, but I learned what not to do, too."
When Aggarwal retired in 1988, Livigni succeeded him as VP of research.
During his time at General Tire, solution SBR was coming into use by tire makers. Livigni was the principal scientist involved in the development of barium-based catalysts for the polymerization of butadiene and its copolymer¬- ization with styrene to give high trans rubbers with low vinyl content.
A hostile takeover attempt in 1987 of GenCorp caused a major reorganization of the company, and the sale of its tire operations to Continental A.G. Spanish SR producer Repsol acquired the high trans technology on a non-exclusive basis, and with the departure of the tire business, GenCorp's involvement in tire polymer research ended.
"When we had the tire company, work- ing with tire rubbers, there was a synergy. We could have the tire compound tweaked by the experts making the tires. We lost that" when the tire division was sold, he said.
Besides the SBR development, Livigni is noted for two other major discoveries: polyoxypropylene polyols, which were licensed to Arco, and since have been sold several times and now are owned by Bayer; and Telagen rocket propellant binder, used on the Minuteman missiles. He earned 37 patents in his career.
Livigni took early retirement at the age of 59 when GenCorp reorganized and spun off its polymers group as Omnova Solutions Inc. The scientist helped Omnova find a technology director—Barry Rosenbaum of Advanced Elastomer Systems. Rosenbaum then hired Livigni as a consultant.
"The interesting thing is Rosenbaum ended up with three Goodyear Medalists as consultants—Aubie Coran, Ed Kresge and now myself," Livigni said. "I told him it's a star on his lapel; he knows how to recruit."
Returning the favor
Livigni has done much to give back to the rubber industry and institutions that helped him enjoy a successful career.
He is or has been on a number of boards of directors. He has been an active member of the UA advisory boards in the College of Arts and Sciences and previously the chemistry department.
He also sponsors the Dr. Russell A. Livigni Graduate Fellowship at the UA Department of Chemistry.