Frederick J. Karol

Born: February 28, 1933 | Norton, MA, US
Died: December 16, 2018 | Lakewood, NJ, US

Frederick J. Karol discusses his early interest in chemistry, as well as his BSS in chemistry at Boston University and his two years of military service. Karol joined Union Carbide Corporation in 1956 , rising in the ranks to Senior Corporate Fellow, the position he holds presently; Karol took a brief hiatus to pursue a PhD in organic chemistry at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Karol discusses his lengthy career at Union Carbide, including the development of the gas phase process for making high pressure polyethylene replacement products, linear low density polyethylene development, among other research developments, as well as Union Carbide's history and professional philosophies.

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Interview Details

Interview no.: Oral History 0125
No. of pages: 46
Minutes: 171

Interview Sessions

James J. Bohning
10 January 1995
Bound Brook, New Jersey

Abstract of Interview

This interview with Frederick J. Karol begins with a short discussion of Karol's family background and childhood near Boston, Massachusetts. Following an early interest in chemistry, Karol in 1946 enrolled at Boston University and graduated with a BS in chemistry before enlisting for two years of military service. He worked for Union Carbide from 1956 to 1959, began a family, and then entered a graduate program at MIT, studying statistical thermodynamics and organic chemistry under Gardner Swain and conducting thesis research on isotope effects. He continued catalysis research upon his return to Carbide in 1962, eventually developing a variety of proprietary catalysts for use with a high density polyethylene gas phase process. Karol's contributions to the development of a gas phase process for making polyethylene products under low pressure helped to revolutionize the industry, as Union Carbide next developed this technology to commercial operations. The interview describes the worldwide licensing of the linear low density polyethylene process, its economic and environmental advantages, and the extension of this technology into synthetic rubbers; also discussed are the technical and management necessities for such innovative developments. Karol contributed to Carbide's collaboration with Shell Chemical Company, which produced polypropylene, improved the catalytic system to make a wider spectrum of polypropylenes, and eventually led to process licensing. Here Karol discusses kinetic and analytic studies to understand the fundamental principles and mechanisms of polymerization; catalyst requirements and testing involving screening of reactions, analysis of property indicators, and use of pilot plants for testing; and his role in guiding development. After describing Karol's education and subsequent research, the interview focuses on Union Carbide's history and work environment, support for R&D and publishing, and Karol's career progress and professional philosophies on management and scientific innovation. Karol describes the history of linear low density polyethylene, the development of both the Ziegler-Natta process and the UNIPOL process, and Union Carbide's licenses and worldwide ventures. The interview closes with a discussion of the future of R&D and the chemical industry, and the significance of the Perkin Medal.


Year Institution Degree Discipline
1949 Boston University BS Chemistry
1962 Massachusetts Institute of Technology PhD Organic Chemistry

Professional Experience

Union Carbide Company

1956 to 1959
Chemist, Chemical and Plastics Group

Union Carbide Corporation

1962 to 1965
Chemist, Chemical and Plastics Group
1965 to 1967
Project Scientist
1967 to 1969
Research Scientist
1969 to 1978
Group Leader, Chemical and Plastics Group
1978 to 1981
Research Associate and Group Supervisor
1981 to 1984
Corporate Fellow
Senior Corporate Fellow


Year(s) Award

Thomas Edison Patent Award, R&D Council of New Jersey


Excellence in Catalysis Award, Catalysis Society of Metropolitan New York


Chemical Pioneer Award, American Institute of Chemists


Perkin Medal, Society of Chemical Industry (American Section)


Conley Award for Plastics/Engineering Technology, Society of Plastics Engineers


International Award, Society of Plastics Engineers


Collegium of Distinguished Alumni, Boston University


Award for Creative Invention, American Chemical Society


50th Anniversary Recognition Award, Society of Plastics Engineers (Newark)


New Jersey Inventors Hall of Fame


Outstanding Presentation Award, American Institute of Chemical Engineers Meeting, New Orleans

Table of Contents

Early Life and Education

Childhood near Boston, Massachusetts. First exposure to chemistry in high school. Chemistry major at Boston University. Service druing Korean War.

Career at Union Carbide

Position with Union Carbide after discharge from service. Early involvement with Ziegler-Natta catalysts. Marriage and birth of first child. Graduate studies with Gardner Swain, studying statistical thermodynamics and organic chemistry at MIT. Return to Union Carbide and early catalysis work. Development of gas phase process for making high pressure polyethylene replacement products. Translation of gas phase process technology to commercial operations. Worldwide licensing of linear low density polyethylene process. Extension of technology into synthetic rubbers. Collaboration with Shell Chemical Company to produce gas phase polypropylene, and licensing of developed process. Kinetic and analytical studies to understand the fundamental principles and mechanisms of polymerization. Discussion of catalyst requirements and testing.

Recollection of College and Graduate Career

Professors at Boston University. Papers published at MIT.

Discussion of Union Carbide History and Professional Philosophies

Publishing attitudes at Union Carbide and professional role as spokesman for technology. Progression through research ladder positions at Union Carbide. History of linear low density polyethylene development at Union Carbide, Phillips Petroleum, and Standard Oil. Development of Ziegler-Natta process versus Phillips slurry process. Significance and history of UNIPOL process and worldwide licensing. Teamwork at Union Carbide and role of loners. Discussion of Perkin Medal address, "The Roots of Innovation. " Philosophies on overcoming setbacks and failures. Union Carbide's development across career and strong support for R&D. Opinions on the future of R&D and the chemical industry.


About the Interviewer

James J. Bohning

James J. Bohning was professor emeritus of chemistry at Wilkes University, where he had been a faculty member from 1959 to 1990. He served there as chemistry department chair from 1970 to 1986 and environmental science department chair from 1987 to 1990. Bohning was chair of the American Chemical Society’s Division of the History of Chemistry in 1986; he received the division’s Outstanding Paper Award in 1989 and presented more than forty papers at national meetings of the society. Bohning was on the advisory committee of the society’s National Historic Chemical Landmarks Program from its inception in 1992 through 2001 and is currently a consultant to the committee. He developed the oral history program of the Chemical Heritage Foundation, and he was CHF’s director of oral history from 1990 to 1995. From 1995 to 1998, Bohning was a science writer for the News Service group of the American Chemical Society. In May 2005, he received the Joseph Priestley Service Award from the Susquehanna Valley Section of the American Chemical Society.  Bohning passed away in September 2011.