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Wacky World of Rubber: The men behind the Sparks-Thomas Award

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William J. Sparks (left) and Robert M. Thomas are the scientists for whom the ACS Rubber Division award is named.

This edition of the Wacky World of Rubber blog isn't so much wacky as it is educational. It is the story of William J. Sparks and Robert M. Thomas, the ExxonMobil scientists for whom the ACS Rubber Division gives out an award each year during the Science & Technology Awards luncheon at its spring technical meeting.

The purpose the Sparks-Thomas Award is to perpetuate the memory of the two chemists who developed butyl rubber. Established in 1986 and supported by ExxonMobil Chemical, it is aimed at "recognizing and encouraging outstanding scientific contributions and innovations in the field of elastomers by younger scientists, technologists and engineers."

It occurred to me that I had reported on these award winners annually without knowing the full story behind the two men for whom the award was named. Many of you undoubtedly may know the story, but for those who don't, the next time you read about the winners of this honor, now you will know the back story.

Sparks and Thomas were relatively early in their careers when in 1937 they co-invented poly-isobutylene-coisoprene, which is commonly known as butyl rubber. They were conducting research at Standard Oil Co.'s (later re-named ExxonMobil) laboratory in Linden, N.J., on another company product, Vistanex. They mixed it in a reactor and added a small amount of butadiene to create the first batch of butyl rubber.

For the invention, they were granted U.S. Patent No. 2,356,128.

According to ExxonMobil, the new product created a nearly impermeable barrier, was flexible while retaining its shape and dampened vibration. Those characteristics made butyl rubber particularly useful for tires, which needed to hold air, flex when rolling over bumps and be able to isolate road vibrations.

The invention took off during World War II, when Standard Oil built and operated the first commercial butyl rubber factory in cooperation with the U.S. government as part of the Synthetic Rubber Program to accelerate the development and production of SR to support the war effort.

ExxonMobil said the invention of Sparks and Thomas has enabled it to be the global leader in butyl rubber for the last eight decades. Besides its use in tires, butyl rubber also has applications for motor mounts, adhesives and sealants, tank and pond liners, protective gloves, bladders for sports balls and even a food-safe version for chewing gum.

Thomas received his bachelor's in chemistry from Virginia Tech and joined Standard Oil in 1929, retiring in 1965 after a 46-year career. He earned 75 patents, directed the work of several notable polymer scientists and received the ACS Rubber Division's Charles Goodyear Medal in 1969, the highest honor given by the technical association. He died in 1984 at age 76.

Sparks received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Indiana University and his doctorate from the University of Illinois. He became ExxonMobil's chief scientist and earned 145 patents before retiring in 1967. He served as president of the American Chemical Society in 1966 and, among other honors, was awarded the Charles Goodyear Medal in 1963. His grandson Robert Sparks also was a doctoral student in biochemistry at the University of Illinois. Robert Sparks said his grandfather was very concerned about the environment, and that his favorite quote was "Science without purpose is an art without responsibility," according to a bio on the University of Illinois website.

Some of his other patents included new fuels, gasoline additives, propellants, encapsulated oxidants, asphalt additives and food-wrapping films. He died in 1976 at age 71.

Thomas and Sparks were inducted posthumously into the Inventors Hall of Fame in 2016.

As for the Sparks-Thomas award given in their honor, this year's recipient was Megan Robertson from the Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering at the University of Houston.

At the Rubber Division's 2019 Spring Technical Meeting, the next honoree will be Pamela Martin, who works in advanced materials and product development at the Tun Abdul Razak Research Centre.

It also is interesting to note that Endurica L.L.C., the company formed by 2007 Sparks-Thomas Award recipient William Mars, now sponsors another of the Rubber Division's Science & Technology Awards, the Fernley H. Banbury Award.