However, Ziegler also points out that as soon as the far-reaching importance of his results became apparent, he followed up on them with quite some curiosity, focus and vigour. Towards the end of his talk, he describes his approach as an unbiased, impartial and attentive hike through the world of chemistry, combining aspects of the organic, inorganic and technical manifestations of the field. He thereby raises a strong point in favour of the benefits of fundamental, untargeted, interdisciplinary research.
This point is emphasized further when one considers the impact of Ziegler’s work on science and society. Today, just as in 1964, the year of the talk, Ziegler-Natta catalysts are used worldwide for the large scale industrial manufacture of polyethylene (from ethylene) and polypropylene (from propylene), two of the most common and widely employed plastics. The total global annual production of these two materials is well in excess of 100 million tonnes, generating an annual market of around 200 billion EUR. In fact, it is highly unlikely that you do not have a Ziegler-Natta based plastic in your reach while you are reading this. Water bottles, plastic bags, stationery, but also car parts and laboratory equipment are just a few examples.
From a chemical perspective, the importance of transition metal to carbon bonds (e.g. carbon to titanium bonds in the case of the Ziegler-Natta catalyst) in chemical catalysis surged in the second half of the 20th century. The result are several important technical processes such as the Monsanto and CATIVA processes for the large-scale production of acetic acid from methanol as well as a plenty of Nobel Prizes in Chemistry, the most recent ones being the 2001 Prize to William S. Knowles, Ryoji Noyori and K. Barry Sharpless, the 2005 Prize to Yves Chauvin, Robert H. Grubbs and Richard R. Schrock as well as the 2010 Prize to Richard F. Heck, Ei-ichi Negishi and Akira Suzuki. The way towards these impressive developments was paved by Ziegler’s early success with transition metal catalysis, a success, which according to Ziegler himself, essentially depended on the academic freedom he enjoyed during his career.