Professor James Economy and family establish named Professorship


The James Economy Professorship will support MatSE in the recruitment of established researchers dedicated to the development of new materials for societal purposes. The Professorship was announced at a 90thbirthday celebration held in March 2019 and attended by colleagues of the past and present, former students, and family.

James Economy Professorship
James Economy Professorship

Pictured here: top left, Professory James Economy; top right, family of Professor Economy; bottom left, former students. See more photos here:


A Lifetime of Achievements 

Professor James Economy has, for nearly 60 years, been a recognized leader in the field of materials science and engineering with respect to developing new materials in key technological areas, in shaping materials education, and in developing future generations of young entrepreneurial scientists and engineers. 

Dr. Economy obtained his B.S. Degree in Chemistry from Wayne State University in 1950. He received his Chemistry Ph.D. at the University of Maryland in 1954. From 1954 to 1956, Dr. Economy was a postdoctoral researcher in the Chemistry Department at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. In 1956 he joined Allied Chemical in Tonawanda, New York, and headed up a research group on the newly emerging field of polyolefins. When Allied Chemical moved to New Jersey in 1960, Economy transferred to the Carborundum Company as manager of the Chemistry Department. 

During his tenure at the Carborundum Company from 1960-75, his research was selected 14 times for the IR-100 Award recognizing outstanding technical development in American industry. From 1965 to 1972, his group developed more than 20 new materials with commercial potential and brought a number of them to the marketplace (at least four of these are still available today). From 1975-89, Dr. Economy was manager of the Polymer Science and Technology Department in the Research Division of IBM, where his group achieved worldwide prominence for scientific and technological achievements. When Carborundum began to sharply reduce its research funding, Economy moved to IBM to serve as director of polymer research at the San Jose Research Laboratory. 

Economy’s research at IBM was gaining the notice of faculty and administrators from the University of Illinois. In 1988, the University of Illinois offered him the position of Head of the newly formed MatSE Department (a merger of the Department of Ceramic Engineering and the Department of Metallurgical and Mining Engineering), and he accepted. 

“One of the first things I had to do as Department Head was to get a curriculum put together that would integrate the four areas of concentration—metals, ceramics, polymers, electronic materials,” Economy said. Over the next few years, he hired around 10 faculty members, bringing a new breadth of expertise to the department. The new MatSE curriculum started in the 1991-92 academic year. In the new curriculum, MatSE students could specialize in a given material while learning about the broad spectrum of materials. Economy developed and taught two courses at the University of Illinois: an undergraduate materials synthesis course and a graduate course on polymer synthesis. The department began offering scholarships to incoming freshmen and actively recruiting top students, which resulted in an increase in the quality and number of undergraduates enrolled in MatSE. The Kiln House was renovated into state-of-the-art undergraduate laboratories. A new alumni group was established, and the MatSE Alumni Association was formed. During Economy’s tenure as Head, the materials program at Illinois became one of the top three programs in the nation. 

After serving as head for 11 years, Economy decided it was time to step down. Almost immediately he took the initiative to organize a successful submission for an NSF Science and Technology Center on Advanced Materials for Water Purification. He subsequently headed the program for the first two years during its formative period. “The goal of the center,” Economy said, “was to develop revolutionary materials and systems for safely and economically purifying water.” The award was worth $4 million per year for 10 years. 

To the outside observer, Economy’s research group definitely has an entrepreneurial bent. All of his students have been involved in some way with starting up business activities. Economy is a strong proponent of the Illinois Launch program at the University. “Our graduates have a unique potential, as opposed to any other students in the College of Engineering, to pursue start-ups because of the critical role of new materials development in start-up companies,” he said. Economy discovered a thermosetting polyester which seems to solve a host of problems. He also continues research into advanced materials for water and air purification. These research activities have led to several new companies established jointly by Economy and his students. 

Professor Economy has published over 250 research papers and 47 book chapters, and he holds over 100 U.S. patents. He was elected a member of the National Academy of Engineering in 1987, and he became a Fellow of Polymer Materials Science and Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences in 2003. His awards from the American Chemical Society include the Schoelkopf Medal in 1972, Phillips Medal in 1985, and H.F. Mark Award in 1998. He also received the Southern Research Burn Institute Award in 1976, American Institute of Chemist: Chemical Pioneer Award in 1987, P. J. Flory Award in 2001, and Fiber Society Founders’ Award in 2005. He has held many offices in technical societies, including chairman of the Polymer Division in 1985, and president of the Macromolecular Division of the International Union of Pure and Applied Chemistry from 1994-98. 

He has been a member of the National Academy of Engineering and a fellow of Polymer Materials Science and Engineering and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. In 2007 he was named a Founder Professor in the College of Engineering at the University of Illinois. He has 100 U.S. patents with many foreign equivalents, and his list of publications numbers close to 250. Professor James Economy has made countless and immeasurable contributions to the Materials Science community, both internationally and here at Illinois. His leadership and knowledge have changed how we study materials and teach our students. His drive and passion helped make the Materials Science and Engineering department at the University of Illinois one of the best in the world.