Prompted by a post World War II boom in demand for plastics, Phillips Petroleum invested $50 million to bring its own miracle product – Marlex – to market in 1954.
The company gambled that the new plastic would be perfect for all manner of emerging products trying to keep up with consumer demand.
With millions of dollars already committed, investors expected immediate results from the Phillips lab product.
Marlex, a high-density polyethylene, was developed by Phillips chemists Paul Hogan and Robert Banks – who were researching gasoline additives. In their experiments, Hogan and Banks began to study catalysts.
“In June 1951, they set up an experiment in which they modified their original catalyst (nickel oxide) to include small amounts of chromium oxide,” notes the American Chemical Society. Their work was expected to produce low-molecular-weight hydrocarbons.
“As Paul Hogan recalls it, he was standing outside the laboratory when Banks came out saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got something new coming in our kettle that we’ve never seen before.’ Running inside, they saw that the nickel oxide had produced the expected liquids. But the chromium had produced a white, solid material. Hogan and Banks were looking at a new polymer – crystalline polypropylene.”
Only a few years later when Phillips introduced high-density polyethylene in 1954, under the brand name Marlex, “company marketing executives were wildly optimistic, expecting that the product would be a big hit and that the Phillips would not be able to keep it on the shelves.”
But the transition from laboratory to mass production was far more difficult than executives had anticipated. When customers failed to materialize, the dingy, inconsistently sized, off-specification pellets accumulated.
Phillips found itself with no buyers and warehouses full of Marlex. As the Bartlesville company stored its unwanted Marlex and searched for new customers, relief came from an unexpected source.
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