Memorial Tributes: Volume 26
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  • JAMES ECONOMY (1929-2021)



    JAMES ECONOMY, professor emeritus in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, died on October 26, 2021, at 92 years of age.

    Economy was born in Detroit, Michigan, on March 28, 1929, to Peter and Bessie Economy. He obtained his BS in chemistry from Wayne State University in 1950. In 1954, Economy earned his PhD under Professor Bill Bailey (William J. Bailey, elected 1990, deceased 1989) at the University of Maryland, where he conducted pioneering work on Diels-Alder-based polymerization reactions. From 1954 to 1956, he was a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with Professor Carl Shipp Marvel, working on elastomers and high-temperature polymers.

    Economy then took a position at Allied Chemical in Tonawanda, New York, where he was head of research at Semet-Solvay Petrochemical, researching polyolefins and developing new catalyst systems. In 1960, when Allied Chemical moved their facilities to New Jersey, he accepted a position as the manager of materials science and chemistry at the Carborundum Company, now owned by Saint Gobain, in the research branch of their Research and Development (R&D) division. During his tenure from 1960 to 1975, Economy and his group developed more than 20 new materials that showed commercial potential. Four of those materials are still available today. His research at Carborundum was selected fourteen times for an Industrial Research (I-R) award, which is now known as the R&D 100 Award, named after R&D World magazine. Award winners are recognized for their innovative products and technologies that revolutionize the industry.

    Especially noteworthy among his accomplishments at Carborundum was the first practical synthesis of a homopolymer of para-hydroxybenzoic acid—now sold under the trade name Ekonol. By 1963, it was specified as a thermally sprayed abradable seal for aircraft engines, a function it still serves today. Economy also investigated copolymers of the para-hydroxybenzoic structure, modified with terephthalic acid and hydroquinone to produce two separate copolymers marketed initially as Ekkcel I-2000 and Ekkcel C-1000. These products are still sold today (under different trade names) by Solvay and Sumitomo.

    After working at Carborundum, Economy transitioned to the role of manager of the Polymer Science and Technology Department at IBM Research, a position he held from 1979–89. He went on to become the director of polymer research at the Almadan San Jose Research Laboratory. His IBM group transferred numerous materials to the operating divisions and not only synthesized and characterized new polymers, but also developed initial pilot production of them. During his time there, Economy came to know the Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Flory very well through his consulting with IBM. Through his friendship with Flory, Economy was invited on the first scientific exchange with the People’s Republic of China following the opening of US-China relations. Economy’s time at IBM also entailed organizing numerous scientific meetings that included members of IBM’s divisions worldwide and the leading polymer scientists of the day.

    In 1989, Economy took the helm as the first department head of Materials Science and Engineering (MatSE) at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, leading faculty and staff following a merger of the ceramic engineering and the metallurgical and mining engineering departments. Jim was instrumental in leading the newly merged department on a path to excellence. He hired many talented faculty members who have gone on to shape the department as well as the field. The breadth of Jim’s contributions to materials science is vast and deep. For nearly 25 years, Economy inspired generations of materials science scholars and engineers at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign with his teaching and leadership.

    “One of the first things I had to do as department head was to get a curriculum put together that would integrate the four areas of concentration¾metals, ceramics, polymers (and) electronic materials,” said Economy in an April 2019 article published on MatSE’s website highlighting a professorship established in his name.1

    Economy developed and taught curricula on materials and polymer synthesis for undergraduate and graduate students, respectively. Under his leadership, MatSE became one of the top materials science and engineering programs in the United States. Notably, Economy oversaw the renovation of the Ceramics Kiln House, which provided state-of-the-art undergraduate labs. He also increased MatSE’s undergraduate enrollment by offering incoming freshmen scholarships and recruiting top-notch students.

    In 2000, after a decade of service at MatSE, Economy stepped down from his role as department head, but he continued doing what he loved: teaching about and researching polymers. Economy headed to the National Science Foundation’s Technology Center on Advanced Materials for Water Purification, where he developed revolutionary materials and systems to purify water both safely and economically. His efforts yielded $4 million per year for the next 10 years.

    Economy has received numerous awards and honors over the years, including the American Chemical Society Paul J. Flory Award for Polymer Education (2001), the Herman F. Mark Polymer Chemistry Award (1998), the Phillips Medal (1985), the Schoelkopf Medal (1972), the American Institute of Chemists’ Chemical Pioneer Award (1987), and the Southern Research Burn Institute Award (1976). He was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering (1987) and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2003), and he was named a fellow of the  American Chemical Society (2012). Economy published over 250 research papers and 47 book chapters, and he held over 100 US patents.

    Economy also helped found two companies, Aromatic Thermosetting coPolyesters (ATSP) Innovations and Serionix¾both born out of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign’s Research Park in 2010 and 2011, respectively. ATSP Innovations develops, produces, and commercializes new resins, and Serionix produces high-performance filtration materials.

    In 2019, the year of his 90th birthday, the James Economy Professorship was established to support MatSE in the recruitment of established researchers dedicated to the development of new materials for the advancement of society. Professor Charles Schroeder was selected as the first James Economy Professor of Materials Science and Engineering in August of 2019.

    Economy started a top-ranked undergraduate program in materials science and engineering at the University of Illinois fostered new areas of research, and he inspired the entrepreneurial translation of this basic materials research to the public sector.

    “Jim embodied what it means to be a Grainger engineer,” said Rashid Bashir, dean of The Grainger College of Engineering at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champagn. “His commitment to discovering innovative materials is nothing short of inspirational. Jim was an exemplary leader as MatSE’s first department head. It’s because of his service and generosity dedicating a professorship in his name that The Grainger College of Engineering will continue to inspire the next generation of world-changing Grainger engineers.2

    Economy is survived by his wife, Anastasia; his four children, Elizabeth (David Wah), Peter, Katherine (Farouc Jaffer), and Melissa (Glenn Mathias); eight grandchildren; two nieces; and two nephews.

    1Professor James Economy and family establish named Professorship. April 29, 2019. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.
    2Jankauski E. Nov. 8 2021. Remembering MatSE's first department head James Economy. The University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign.