Keeping up with SiGNa

Co-founder Dr. James Dye named Fellow to National Academy of Inventors

April 27, 2017

SiGNa co-founder, Dr. James Dye, was recently named a Fellow to the National Academy of Inventors (NAI) in recognition of his innovation and dedication to the field of chemistry.  On April 6, Dr. Dye and others were honored at a ceremony in the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library & Museum in Boston, Massachusetts.

Dr. Dye is well-known for his work with alkali metals, and has been credited with the discovery of both alkalides and electrides. His work and research have contributed greatly to SiGNa’s science and products. In addition to being named an NAI Fellow, Dr. Dye has been named to the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, along with being given the American Chemical Society Award in Inorganic Chemistry.

We congratulate Dr. Dye on his recent appointment and thank him for his valued contributions to both the scientific community and to SiGNa. You can read a Q&A with Dr. Dye below:


Co-Founder Dr. James Dye on the Science Behind SiGNa

Dr. Dye, your research on stabilized alkali metals is at the heart of SiGNa’s product portfolio.  How did you get your start as a scientist?

I was born and raised near Buhl, Minnesota, and first became interested in chemistry in the 9th grade.  I had a good teacher who really sparked my interest in science.

At that time, my family had just moved from town to a 40-acre farm my dad had bought for $500 (and that included the house!).  It was very primitive.  We had no running water or electricity.  We had one cow that I milked every morning before school.  And, if I wanted a bath, I first had to pump 17 pails of water for the sauna.  This all helped me understand that I didn’t want to be a farmer!

My interest in chemistry and science continued to grow through my high school career, which coincided with the advent of WWII.  High school lab programs were being shut down everywhere, because schools couldn’t get materials due to the war effort.  However, my chemistry teacher supported my interest and turned me loose on my own in the lab.  I was able to study independently as long as I wrote up reports on everything I learned.  This is when I received my first award, the Westinghouse High School Science Award.

During that time, when all adult males were being drafted, I ended up working two summers in the iron ore mines.  One year I worked in the open pit mine, and one year I worked on the track gang, laying down dirt under the railroad ties so the iron ore cars could dump the waste over the side without falling (events we always enjoyed!).  At the age of 16, this taught me something about work.

Then, as the war was coming to a close, I was drafted and spent 13 months and five days in the United States Army.  (Fortunately for me my service was longer than 12 months; otherwise I would have been eligible for redrafting into the Korean War.)

When I got out of the Army, I returned to community college in Northern Minnesota.   After that, I went to Gustavus Adolphus College, graduating in 1949 with a Bachelor of Science degree in Chemistry.  I received my PhD in Chemistry at Iowa State University in 1953, working on rare earth compounds and lanthanides and actinides – inner transition metals.  My graduate work focused on methods of separation and electrochemical properties related to rare earths.

When I came to Michigan State to begin my teaching career, I became interested in alkali metals – lithium through cesium.  These are very reactive metals that have only one electron in their outer shell.  Therefore, they are ready to lose that one electron in ionic bonding with other elements.

Alkali metals have been a focus for most of your career.  How did your work in this area evolve? 

I began by focusing on the nature of alkali metals dissolved in liquid ammonia to create solvated electrons (free electrons solvated in a solution). A trapped electron is the lightest possible anion. Anions are negatively charged species, but they usually contain a positively-charged nucleus such as a proton.  The distinguishing feature of solvated and trapped electrons is that they are stabilized by surrounding positive charges rather than a central positive ion.

From there I became very interested in electrons and electrides (an ionic compound in which the electron is the anion), which was ultimately quite useful for SiGNa’s purposes.  I thought I could measure the speed with which electrons moved through these solutions, although I almost didn’t get tenured because it took me six years to solve that problem!

From there I began branching out, which led to the development of two classes of new compounds, including alkalides (solid/crystalized compounds in which the anion is an alkali anion such as Na).  That created quite a stir.  It was a new state of oxidation, and nobody had ever made these before.

What we were working on at the same time – this was in 1974 – was taking these solutions that contained solvated electrons and precipitating pure, crystalline compounds that contained negatively charged electrons trapped in cages as the anions rather than normal salts, which contain ordinary anions such as chloride, nitrate, etc. We named this class of compounds electrides.

Low concentrations of trapped electrons in various solids (F-centers), as well as alkali metals in porous oxides, had been known for some time, and we had made electride films and powders as far back as 1978 and single crystals in 1986, but they were very hard to work with.  Samples had to be very cold and very dry, and they decomposed above about -20° C so there were a lot of challenges experimentally, which discouraged other people from working in this space.  We had special techniques and lab infrastructure at Michigan State, which allowed us to keep the environment cold enough and away from air and moisture. So we were able to do things that others couldn’t in the scientific discovery process. We were completely alone in this field until 2003 when workers in Japan made a thermally stable inorganic electride. Since that time, theoretical and experimental work on electrides has “exploded” with many hundreds of papers on the subject.

Was this just intended as pure research, or was there a commercial application you had in mind?

This certainly started out as pure research.  But as work progressed, we found we could make systems that were good reducing agents – good for all kinds of chemical reactions, starting with electrides, but moving into other compounds based on alkali metals.

We found ways to put alkalide metals like sodium into zeolites, which are microporous, aluminosilicate minerals commonly used as commercial absorbents and catalysts (e.g. commercial water softeners).  We began to study the nature of alkalide metals in the pores of zeolites, which have a naturally layered structure.

In 2005, Michael Lefenfeld (SiGNa co-founder and CEO) contacted me to see if this work with zeolites could translate into the use of silica and alumina gels – which have various pore sizes vs. layers – for acceptors of alkalide metals.  We started talking, I signed an NDA, and we began working together before the company was officially formed.

What was the next step on this scientific journey? 

The next big breakthrough came when I was working in collaboration with SiGNa and Michael.  He was interested in producing hydrogen safely, in an environmentally clean fashion.

Looking at all the possibilities, we discovered that sodium silicide, Na4 Si4 , could produce approximately 4-5 times as much hydrogen per gram as the materials we had been using.  We did that work here at Michigan State and at SiGNa facilities, focusing on stability, safety – and ultimately ease of use when it came to scale up.

How difficult is it to take something out of the lab and make it into an actual product?

As it relates to SiGNa, I could certainly see that this technology could be very useful and that it had commercial utility.  But, to think of the tons of material SiGNa is currently making in its manufacturing operations still boggles my mind! We worked with very small quantities in the lab.  Scaling to a manufacturing environment used an entirely different technology and infrastructure than I had access to.  I’m amazed at the scale of the current SiGNa manufacturing operations [Rochester, New York].  How the materials are made, handled, utilized…it’s just amazing.  To see it actually happening in a commercial operation is just a real tour de force.

Right now there is a lot of work going to take materials from academia and turn them into commercially useful products.  Basic research at universities and national labs is becoming ever more integral to industrial endeavors.  Unfortunately, there is still quite a bit of red tape in forming these partnerships, but I expect as this model evolves, it will become much easier to navigate.

Tell us a little about your family and personal life.

I met my wife, Angeline, in high school and took her to the prom.  We married in 1948.  She received her Associates Degree early on, and supported me by working as a librarian while I was studying for my undergrad and PhD degrees.  I always say she earned her ‘PhT’ during those years for ‘Pushing Hubby Through.’

We have three children, 10 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren.  My older daughter was a Physics teacher (until her recent retirement).  My youngest daughter is an elementary school teacher.  My son, Tom, is an electrical engineer and serial entrepreneur.  Tom actually took my Physical Chemistry course at Michigan State.

What are you most proud of?

Being a professor is a hard job, requiring a lot of time and hours.  But, it’s a career I have never regretted.  My pride and pleasure has always been in new discoveries.  Seeing something that started in the lab grow into an industrial application has certainly been very gratifying.

I’m also very proud of taking the path of constant learning.  At Michigan State we’re given sabbaticals every seven years, and I took advantage of five of those sabbatical leaves to pursue learning experiences and to broaden my horizons.

During my first sabbatical, the family and I lived in Germany for a year, where I worked with Manfred Eigen, the German physical chemist who later won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for work on measuring fast chemical reactions.  Again, I give my wife credit for uprooting three children and moving halfway across the world to support my career.

During my third sabbatical, we moved to France where I studied with Jean-Marie Lehn who also received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his synthesis of cryptands.  One of my crowning achievements was to learn the language well enough to give two lectures in French! The other three sabbaticals were at Ohio State, Bell Labs, and Cornell.

My total career has been absolutely gratifying.  I’ve had 65 PhDs work under me, and I’ve keep in touch with most of them over the years, most of whom now have gratifying careers of their own.

Do you believe that chemistry can make the world a better place? 

I actually think the scientific community has been underrated by the public.  Many bad things that happen are blamed on science, when in fact thousands of developments and improvements in lifestyle – and hopefully the environment – require good research advances.

I think scientists need to communicate better with the public, sharing more about all the good things that happen through science.

One of the things that has made me very happy to be involved with SiGNa was when they were recognized with the Presidential Green Chemistry Award.  It makes me feel good to have been part of producing a product that offers a much more environmentally friendly option than a lot of the industrial processes that go on nowadays.

What’s next?

Basically I finished up the lab work this year with my last students and we laid the groundwork for some possible developments that SiGNa can work on into the future.  Two recent students worked on alkali metals in the pores of alumina gel and one of them took employment with SiGNa.  Others worked on new metal catalysts. We hope that SiGNa will be able to take that work and diversify and amplify it – like developing new catalysts and proceeding with industrial testing.

I will be 90 in July.  It’s time to retire!  My wife and I will be doing more vacation travel, visiting all our kids, grandkids and great-grandkids. We look forward to spending more time with them. It’s been a great life, and we’ve made all kinds of friends all over the world.

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