Giulio Natta. Who was the Italian chemist “king of plastic” and winner of the Nobel Prize

Giulio Natta, Italian chemist and engineer, was one of the most brilliant scientists of our country. There are schools named after him. Born in Imperia in 1903, he taught for many years at Politecnico di Milano and has conducted numerous researches, benefiting from the support of Montecatinithe largest Italian chemical company.

Natta is considered so important above all as the father of stereospecific polymerization and because he contributed to the invention polypropyleneone of the most efficient and widespread plastic materials, which earned him the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 1963. The scientist, however, also gave other contributions to scientific progress and has trained young scholars who have in turn become high-level chemists.

Who was Giulio Natta: his university career

The chemist Giulio Natta was born in Porto Maurizioan urban center which today is part of the municipality of Imperia, in 1903. He belonged to a wealthy family and from a young age he showed great intellectual gifts, obtaining his high school diploma at the Cristoforo Colombo classical high school in Genoa at the age of just sixteen.

Plaque on the birthplace

In 1924, at the age of twenty-one, he graduated as a chemical engineer at the Polytechnic of Milan and started a fruitful research activity, being interested in various fields of industrial chemistry. He worked for a period in Germany, where he had the opportunity to deepen his studies on macromolecules, and in 1933, upon returning to Italy, he won the competition for the professorship, embarking on a long career of University professor. After brief experiences in Pavia and Rome, in 1938 he moved to the Polytechnic of Milan, where he taught until 1973.

The research work

Natta began his research in the years between the two world wars, that is, in a moment of great progress in science. It was, among other things, the period in which Enrico Fermi and the “boys from via Panisperna” made fundamental discoveries in the field of nuclear physics.

Natta began working since the 1920s on synthetic fibres, always associating theoretical study with practical applications. Generally he conducted his research in collaboration with companies and, in particular, with Montecatini, the main Italian chemical industry (which became Montedison in 1966 and Edison in 2002). Among Natta’s achievements before World War II were discovering again methanol synthesis process and the construction of the first Italian plant for synthetic rubber construction.

Natta's laboratory reconstructed at the National Museum of Science and Technology in Milan (credts National Museum of Science and Technology)

Natta “king of plastic”: the invention of polypropylene

It was Natta who invented polypropylene in 1954. After the war, in fact, Natta visited the United States together with the director of Montecatini, Piero Giustiniani, to find out about the scientific progress made overseas. He also learned of the experiments on macromolecules and plastics carried out by his German colleague Karl Ziegler.

At that time the plastic materials they were already known, but they were not as efficient and economical as today’s ones and were much less widespread.

In 1954 Ziegler perfected the production of polyethylene, and Natta, realizing the potential of the discoveries, decided to apply a similar process to other substances. In 1954 he thus created the polypropylene, a new material that stood out for its resistance and cheapness. Polypropylene was marketed under the name Moplen and he was immediately lucky.

In the Italy of the economic miracle, plastic, and Moplen in particular, became one of the symbols of progress and contributed to changing the lifestyles of citizens. Television brought advertising for the new material into Italian homes: the slogan “Madam, make sure it’s made of Moplen”, pronounced by the comedian Gino Bramieri, became a real catchphrase.

Moplen advertisement with Gino Bramieri

The new plastics created by Ziegler and Natta had success all over the world and they are still the most widespread today.

Successes and the Nobel Prize in 1963

Polypropylene guaranteed Natta great popularity. The most important recognition came in 1963, when she obtained the Nobel Prize for Chemistry jointly with Karl Ziegler. To date, Natta is the only Italian to have won it.

The scientist, logically, was proud of his discovery, but he also loved to talk about it jokingly and used to repeat: “I just found a way to line up the molecules like toy soldiers on parade.”

Born in 1960

Natta’s contribution to chemistry was not limited to polypropylene, because during his long career the scientist carried out research and discoveries in many sectors.

The death and legacy of Giulio Natta

In 1956 Natta contracted Parkinson’s disease and from 1963, the same year as the Nobel, his condition progressively worsened. Nonetheless, he continued his college career until 1973, when he retired. He died in 1979.

Natta’s legacy to science is not limited to discoveries and studies. The chemist cured the training of many young scholars, capable of continuing the master’s work. It is no coincidence that Natta’s memory is still very much alive. In 2011 the scientist was mentioned even on Mickey Mousein history Qui Quo Qua and the great history of duck chemistry.