When you brush your teeth, thank Murray Raney of Chattanooga.
If you play guitar, thank Murray Raney of Chattanooga.
As you sit on the driver’s seat of your car, thank Murray Raney of Chattanooga.
In his home laboratory on Oak Street in 1926, Raney created a nickel-aluminum alloy that is today known as Raney nickel. It is essential in making nylon, which is used in toothbrush bristles, guitar strings, backpacks and, of course, women’s hosiery. Many plastic components in cars also use nylon for its strength and ability to be cast in many shapes, including polyurethane foam in auto seats.
Raney nickel was granted a patent by the federal government in 1927 and is this year being honored for its invaluable contributions to the world with the American Chemical Society’s National Historic Chemical Landmark designation, only the third time this stature has been awarded to a Tennessee-based invention. To celebrate, the UTC Department of Chemistry is hosting a commemorative event, “Raney Nickel — A Life Changing Catalyst,” at 3 p.m. Thursday in the University Center Chattanooga Room. A plaque honoring Raney will be unveiled at the ceremony.
“Every day we use or come into contact with materials made from chemicals whose preparation involved the use of Raney nickel,” said Robert Mebane, a chemistry professor at UTC from 1983 until 2018. Mebane wrote the proposal for Raney’s selection as a historic landmark by the American Chemical Society and chaired the committee behind the effort.
Raney nickel—also known as spongy nickel—originally was developed to convert cottonseed oil and vegetable oils into cooking shortening. It also is used in a process to create the sweetener sorbitol.
“Many toothpastes and mouthwashes use sorbitol as a sweetening agent because we like the taste of sweet and, secondly, sorbitol does not promote oral bacteria growth,” Mebane said.
Raney’s Oak Street lab was in Fort Wood, adjacent to UTC, and may have been on property that’s now part of the University campus, said Keenan Dungey, head of the Department of Chemistry and Physics. County records don’t show the exact address of the lab, so confirming whether it was on UTC property isn’t possible, Dungey said.
Irvine Grote, former head of the Department of Chemistry and namesake of Grote Hall on campus, was a personal friend of Raney. Like his friend, Grote was an inventor—of dihydroxy aluminum sodium carbonate, resulting in Rolaids antacid tablets—whose discovery also impacts society to this day. The plaque honoring Raney will be placed near the entrance to Grote Hall’s large lecture hall, Dungey said.
Raney’s original source for his nickel-aluminum alloy was a truck crankcase. In 1963, he sold his Raney Catalyst Co., Inc. to W.R. Grace and Co., which continues to produce Raney nickel today at its manufacturing plant in Chattanooga.
In 1989, the Grace company established the Murray Raney Scholarship at UTC. To date, it has given more than $57,000 to chemistry majors pursuing graduate studies or a career in the chemical industry.
The previous two Tennessee winners of the American Chemical Society’s National Historic Chemical Landmark status are acetyl from coal gasification at Tennessee Eastman (1995) and the production and distribution of radioisotopes at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (2008).
The acetyl discovery used coal rather than petroleum as a raw material in the production of acetyl chemicals, which aid in the making of detergents, pharmaceuticals, animal feed and agriculture products, among others.
Radioactive isotopes are routinely used in medicine to detect, diagnose and treat such diseases as cancer, Parkinson’s, hyperthyroidism and many more.