The accomplishments of James Roth (1925– ) display how catalytic processes similar to those described in Petroleum and Petrochemicals can be used to sculpt environmentally friendly molecules.
Roth came of age during World War II. Having completed high school and attended two years of college, at the age of 18 Roth was serving as a navigator aboard a Navy vessel that landed Marines on Iwo Jima during World War II. After the war Roth completed his bachelor's degree in chemistry—earned with credits from three different colleges and universities—and a Ph.D. in physical chemistry from the University of Maryland. After a succession of positions, including a year or two as part owner of a small paint manufacturing company, Roth joined Monsanto in 1960. There he used platinum catalysis to solve an emerging environmental problem, the fouling of streams and lakes with detergents. Using a new platinum-based catalyst, he was able to create linear, or straight-chain, detergent molecules that microorganisms found digestible, as opposed to the earlier branched-chain molecules that were not biodegradable. Commercial detergent manufacturers quickly switched to the biodegradable type.
At Monsanto, Roth also participated in research on homogeneous catalysts instead of the usual solid ones. The research resulted in a revolutionary process for making acetic acid from methanol. Carbon monoxide is added to methanol in the presence of a catalyst, instead of oxidizing ethylene, which is derived from depletable petroleum resources. This process quickly became the standard.
When Roth became a research director at Monsanto, his group's catalytic process was chosen to produce Roundup, the herbicide that John E. Franz had discovered. In 1980, as founder and director of the Corporate Science Center at Air Products, dedicated to exploratory research, Roth entered yet another area in which catalytic processes apply—industrial gases.