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Sweeney, Orland Russell

Published onOct 15, 2021
Sweeney, Orland Russell

(March 27, 1883 – April 21, 1958)

Quick Facts

Former head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Iowa State for twenty years. Dr. Sweeney was a pioneer in the commercial utilization of agricultural waste products.

c. 1934. Source:

Orland Sweeney was born into an Irish Protestant family in Martin's Ferry, Ohio. His father and other relatives had been involved in manufacturing bricks, glass, and steamboats in Wheeling, West Virginia. During his childhood, the family moved to Piper City in northern Illinois. Upon completing high school, Sweeney returned to the Wheeling area and spent seven years in the iron and steel industry. He earned a bachelor's degree in chemical engineering from The Ohio State University in 1909, a master's degree from the same school in 1910, and a doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania in 1916.

In 1916 Sweeney took a faculty position at North Dakota Agricultural College, where he became involved with the inspection of adulteration in the paint industry, early research on the industrial applications of soybeans, and a proposal to manufacture disposable diapers from peat. World War I interrupted those duties. Sweeney became a major in the Chemical Warfare Service and was a leader in the design and development of the Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland. By the time of the Armistice in 1918, that facility was producing more chemical weapons than the rest of the Allies and Central Powers combined. Sweeney next served as head of the department of chemical engineering at the University of Cincinnati, but doctors urged him to abandon industrial chemistry for the sake of his health. In 1919 he married Louella Smith. The couple had two children.

In 1921 Sweeney became head of the Department of Chemical Engineering at Iowa State College (now University), a position he held until his retirement in 1948. He immediately developed a new specialty: extracting industrial raw materials from agricultural waste. Just as other states used derivatives from coal tar and petroleum as the basis for textile dyes, pharmaceuticals, and other industrial products, Sweeney became convinced that Iowans could turn discarded corncobs, cornstalks, oat hulls, and other farm waste into the basis for a wide range of industrial products. Sweeney quickly ensured that most graduate students in his department conducted research on this topic; faculty members who had other interests soon moved on.

Sweeney's research first focused on the corncob. Through distillation, pulverization, fermentation, and digestion techniques, he found corncobs to be a viable source for the industrial chemicals that go into camera film, stockings, explosives, gunpowder, charcoal, the sugar refining process, and perhaps chewing gum. He soon specialized in furfural, a chemical that had potential uses in lacquers, embalming agents, fuel additives, textile dyes, and more. Through the Quaker Oats Company, he worked out a process to obtain furfural at very low cost from the company's millions of pounds of discarded oat hulls. Sweeney then turned to cornstalks, which he used as a raw material for an insulating plastic called maizolith and for an artificial insulating board called Maizewood. The Maizewood company had some success in the early 1930s, producing as much as 70,000 feet of cornstalk insulation board per day. In the mid 1930s, Sweeney was among the leaders in a national effort to develop motor fuels and fuel additives from grain alcohol.

As this line of research suggests, Sweeney was committed to the idea that chemical engineers had a responsibility to serve a broader public. Sweeney actively publicized his research at agricultural fairs and chemical industry conventions, gaining national and international attention. Additional funding came through the National Bureau of Standards, and in 1933 the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Bureau of Chemistry and Soils established a Farm Byproducts Laboratory in Ames. He also served on the Greater Iowa Commission (which helped develop new industries for the state), the War Production Board (the bureaucracy that directed war preparedness issues during World War II), and similar organizations.

By the late 1930s Sweeney's line of research attracted less attention and fewer graduate students. Synthetic products, many derived from petroleum, replaced agricultural waste as the raw material of choice for many chemicals and plastics. Although relatively few of his 300 patents had lasting commercial success or brought long-term help for farm incomes, Sweeney's work was an important attempt to bridge the gap between industrial and agricultural research.

Dr. Sweeney died on April 21, 1958, and is buried at Martin's Ferry, Ohio. In 1964, Sweeney Hall on Iowa State University campus is named in his honor.

Selections of text republished with permission from the Iowa Biographical Dictionary, edited by David Hudson, Marvin Bergman, and Loren Horton. Published by the University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA. Online publication, 2009. 

Selected Sources

Few published secondary works focus on Sweeney's biography.

Obituaries, vitae, and a strong collection of his professional papers are in Orland Russell Sweeney papers, RS 11/4/14, University Archives, Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames.

A fine work that places Sweeney's work into a broader context is Alan I Marcus and Erik Lokensgard, "Creation of a Modern Land-Grant University: Chemical Engineering, Agricultural By-Products and the Reconceptualization of Iowa State College, 1920–1940," in Engineering in a Land Grant Context: The Past, Present, and Future of An Idea, ed. Alan I Marcus (2005).

Online exhibition History of Iowa State: People of Distinction.

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