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Oct. 16, 2013

James Dye: Six decades of research

Oct. 16, 2013

James Dye is a Michigan State University distinguished professor emeritus of chemistry.

What’s the most memorable moment for someone who’s been at Michigan State for 60 years?

I knew right away: I was in a group meeting in 1990 and someone told me that I had a phone call. When I answered, I was told that I had been elected to the National Academy of Sciences. I will never forget that. I’m the only person in the Chemistry Section from the state of Michigan.

When I arrived on the Michigan State College campus in Sept. 1953 as assistant professor of chemistry, my office and lab were squeezed together in one room of Kedzie Hall. My salary was $4,500 per year. When I interviewed for the position, I told my wife that I probably wouldn’t take it because I had many other offers from industry, most of which came with a much higher pay rate.

But I liked what I saw. Michigan State College was becoming Michigan State University and the department, which up to that point wasn’t nationally rated, was emphasizing original research. The cooperation between the chemistry faculty members was very high; in many places, chemistry departments are divided. There are four basic areas of chemistry, and I’m proud to have been director or co-director of Ph.D. students in all four areas as well as in physics and biochemistry.

I am known most for my work with alkali metals. They are highly reactive, especially with water. Because of their reactivity, alkali metals were historically considered dangerous to use and store. My group has developed and commercialized ways to make them much safer to handle, allowing them to be used in a variety of applications. My six decades of research have affected a number of industries, including pharmaceuticals, petroleum refining and fuel cell production.

In addition to being elected to the National Academy, I was named to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.  At age 70, I received the highest award given for inorganic chemistry in the United States:  the American Chemical Society National Award in Inorganic Chemistry.

In 2005, when I was 78 and my business partner, Michael Lefenfeld, was 25, we formed SiGNa Chemistry Inc., a company based on my work of transforming alkali metals into safe powders. I served as director of SiGNa’s scientific council.

One of SiGNa’s most recent products is a hydrogen-producing cartridge, which is used in fuel cells that recharge cell phones, laptop computers and GPS units. The eco-friendly power source, about the size of a small hockey puck, is aimed at hikers, bikers and other outdoor enthusiasts who may be hundreds of miles away from the nearest power sources, as well as people in developing countries who don’t have home electricity. For its efforts, SiGNa was honored with the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award in 2008.

At the end of my career, the studies in fundamental research that seemed to have no practical value have finally paid dividends.

My wife Angie and I recently celebrated our 65th wedding anniversary in Hawaii and play golf often (no cart for us–we walk the 18 holes). We have plans to travel, including a stop in London so I can attend a scientific meeting next May.

I “retired” in 1994, but have continued to conduct research and mentor undergraduate students.

The most recent manuscript we submitted has seven undergraduate co-authors. Even after this continuing retirement, I’ll still be working with students.

I still make the trek into campus most days, even though I officially retired 19 years ago. I can’t just sit at home. I would go crazy.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from the interviewer and author, Jamie DePolo, and the College of Natural Science.